Houston Universities Welcome History Students Displaced by Katrina

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Thousands of students figure among the more than 250,000 Katrina survivors who flocked to Texas in search of higher ground.

Hundreds have found welcome mats outside the doors of public and private universities in Houston including Rice University, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, and the University of St. Thomas.

According to Anne Wright, Vice President for Enrollment, Rice University, nestled among the plush oaks of the posh South Hampton community, has received 200 applications and approved 150 for admission. The deadline for applications is Thursday, September 8. Applicants are being notified on a rolling basis, a process that will be completed by Friday, September 9. Orientation and registration will be held Saturday, September 10. With a few exceptions, enrollment is limited to students with Houston zip codes and Tulane undergraduates without respect to majors. So far, history and social science majors constitute the largest percentage of students admitted.

In the hub of black Houston and touting “Excellence in Achievement,” President Priscilla Dean Slade of Texas Southern University, has welcomed students and faculty displaced by the storm. By Friday, September 2, more than 300 Katrina survivors had enrolled at TSU.

According to Ethiopia Keleta, Chair of the Department of History, Geography, and Economics, the department has received no applications to date from displaced history faculty. One faculty member has nonetheless welcomed at least two history majors, one minor, and a number of students eager to satisfy history requirements.

Kemille Greene, a Dillard University senior majoring in African World Studies and California native, was among them. She recalls her experience:

Although I can't speak for those in other areas hit by the storm, I can say that my escape from Katrina wasn't as nearly as harrowing as most New Orleaneans. My father told me about Katrina for the first time on Thursday the 25th. He left me a vague message about the storm that I quickly dismissed.  

The very next day I heard about the storm on the radio, and after calling my Father, I decided that neither my Dad nor the storm warning on the radio seemed alarming so I wasn't to concerned. 

On Saturday morning my roommate and I woke up at about nine and received word that the university might be closing soon.  I called my mom to see if I could stay with my roommate in Houston and for money for evacuation. We left about 11:50 that same morning. It was three hours to Baton Rouge and six to Houston. I have been staying with my roommates’ grandparents ever since. God willing I will graduate in the spring.

 One block south of Texas Southern University, Eric Gerber, Director of University Communications at the University of Houston, says UH will have enrolled approximately 1000 Katrina survivors by the end of the enrollment period—the largest number among local universities to date. Students choosing UH reflect New Orleans’s diverse collegiate community. Dillard, Loyola, the University of New Orleans, Tulane, and Xavier are all well represented. The university is still sorting students by discipline, so the number of history majors is not known.

As displaced students may not have access to the traditional paperwork required for admission, UH is granting them conditional admission. Equally as important, the Texas Coordinating Board for Higher Education, which oversees public universities in Texas, has allowed universities to charge in-state tuition rates, which are approximately one-third that of out-of-state rates.

UH has waived certain internal fees and set up a Katrina Student Assistance fund for the benefit of the entire UH community. It also welcomes contributions to help defray secondary student expenses for books, clothing, and other necessities.

Eduardo Prieto, Dean of Admissions at the University of St. Thomas—“Catholic, Classical, and Cosmopolitan”—says UST has admitted 70 students displaced by the storm. The first student enrolled August 29, with the remainder submitting applications by September 6. Though a sizeable number are from New Orleans, most are native Houstonians studying at Loyola, Tulane, and Xavier. About forty percent are social science or history majors.

Students were required to meet St. Thomas’s pre-established criteria for admission. Those who enrolled appreciate the quality education the university provides, its size, as well as its catholic affiliation.

Still others, particularly those from Xavier, also appreciate the institution’s visible commitment to diversity. St. Thomas’s student population is approximately 50 percent white and 50 percent ethnic minority.

The university does not have a uniform policy for accommodating students arriving after the opening of school, but professors have been very understanding. Equally as important, the institution is doing its best to accommodate the financial needs of students. To ensure the probability of their success, Friday, September 9, is the deadline for enrollment.

Xavier freshmen Nicole James and Tessyln Brittany Land are among residents from the Greater Houston Area who registered last week. Tesslyn’s experience underscores how unsettling the experience has been for those just embarking on their college careers. It also highlights how networks of friends and institutional collegiality have allowed her and other students to move forward with their lives:

I walk into my World Civilizations class on a hot, sunny, Thursday afternoon, and I say to myself, “My freshmen year is going to be wonderful. I’m attending the college of my choice, Xavier University of Louisiana.”

After 17 years of living under my parent’s roof, I finally get to make my baby steps into the adult world right in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Crescent City.” Unfortunately, my freshmen year at Xavier University came to a screeching halt.

My RA knocked on my dorm room door Friday morning [August 26]. She told my roommate and I that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall Monday and to make evacuation plans to leave school by Saturday. It would be too much of a hassle for my mom and dad to drive down from Houston, Texas to get me from school. Luckily, I had cousins that lived less then thirty minutes away from Xavier. I called my cousins, Mary and Laura, to see if they could get me from school. My cousins came Friday afternoon to pick me up from my dorm.

One of my college friends, Nicole, came along with me. When we arrived at my cousin’s house, the 5 o’clock news was blaring from their big screen television. Because traffic was so heavy that evening, Mary and Laura decided that we would evacuate early tomorrow morning.

At 6 o’clock Sunday morning, we left the house. We packed lightly with only five pairs of clothes per person. Our destination was Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The traffic out of New Orleans was unbelievable. Cars were bumper-to-bumper in all four lanes. Every now and then we were able to reach speeds of 45 mph. To conserve gas we turned the air conditioner off.

As I looked on the shoulders of the roads I could see abandoned cars that either broke down or ran out of gas. There was total chaos everywhere. The drive to Baton Rouge was like no other. It took ten hours to go only 65 miles. At 4 o’clock we finally arrived to my cousin’s younger sister’s house.

The weather in Baton Rouge became aggressive Monday morning. There were high winds and heavy rain. Trees were falling down and their branches were randomly scattered across the country roads. We decided to leave from my cousin’s sister’s house and travel to a safer area. At 4:00 we drove an hour and a half to a small town called Jennings, Louisiana where we spent the night at my cousin’s mom’s house.

Tuesday afternoon, my friend’s dad came to pick my friend and I up from Jennings, LA and take us back to Houston, TX. As soon as I got back to my home in Houston, I heard about all of the caring universities that were opening their doors to displaced students that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Xavier University would not be opening their doors back up until January 4th. Sitting out of school for the fall semester was not an option, so I decided to enroll at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, TX. I will attend this university for the remainder of my fall semester until Xavier University and New Orleans can get up and running again.

Before the storm took place, I was worried about what was going to happen and my family. The whole event felt like a dream. I still can't believe it happened. I went with my friend and her relatives to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am currently in Houston, TX, with my family. My plans are to continue my education at Xavier University in January of 2006.

Notwithstanding the students’ appreciation for the hospitality they have experienced from universities throughout Houston and the country at large, most are committed to finishing at their institutions of first choice. As Leslee McElrath of Cincinatti, Ohio, put it, “I am Xavierite until I die.”

Related Links

  • HNN's Katrina Coverage