The Class of 2006 Post-Katrina: Where are they now?
By Rebecca K. Roussell, Special to THE BLACK COLLEGIAN with Black College Wire
A year ago, floodwaters upended the lives of thousands of students attending the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in New Orleans. Before the waters receded, many would find themselves homeless, and for a semester, all would be unable to return to damaged and shuttered campuses.
Looking back now a year later, many recall feeling rudderless and vulnerable, as even the institutions they relied on struggled to survive one of the greatest urban disasters America has ever witnessed.
Yet in adversity, many students discovered depths of resolve. Forced to spend part of senior year at faraway colleges, they then returned in unexpectedly high numbers to New Orleans in January 2006 to finish what they had started.
The headlines of local newspapers tally the results of their tenacity: Southern University at New Orleans awarded 321 degrees May 13. Dillard University honored 354 graduates with a traditional march down Avenue of the Oaks on July 1. And on August 12, Xavier University of Louisiana graduated 536.
Here are the stories of several who refused to surrender their dreams despite setbacks dealt to them by Hurricane Katrina.
Alvin Watts, 25 – Xavier University of Louisiana B.S. Pharmacy
|Class of 2006 at Xavier University School of Pharmacy commencementPhoto by Irving Johnson III / XULA News Bureau|
Today, Alvin Watts is one step closer to becoming a licensed pharmacist. He is a pharmacy intern at a Walgreens in Baton Rouge, La., and in late August, he was preparing for the last part of his pharmacy licensure exams.
“I take the NAPLEX, which is the medications part, on Monday,” said Watts, while looking over some notes for the test.
For any student, this would be an accomplishment.
For Watts, it was a feat after losing everything in his Ninth Ward home to last year’s floodwaters.
Watts was a pharmacy student at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. When the storm forced the school’s administration to cancel the fall semester, he had finished with classes, but still needed to complete one year of rotations at different pharmacies to be eligible to graduate.
He went home to White Castle, La., to ride the storm out with his family.
“I could just remember seeing the whole city of New Orleans submerged,” he said. With it, he worried, were his goals and four years of hard work.
As the weeks passed after the storm, he did not get any information from Xavier.
“I started calling different schools,” he said, “but I still wanted to graduate from Xavier.”
Eventually, an email from one of his professors lifted a weight off his shoulders.
“[I] did not have to worry,” Watts said. “Different people were working hard to make sure we would graduate.”
Pharmacy students would receive help finding placements, for example.
Watts was able to work at a pharmacy in Natchitoches, located in central Louisiana. A hotel room was provided for him and he was able to concentrate on his work. He finished his next rotations in Gonzales, located just east of Baton Rouge, and returned for his final internship in New Orleans in March 2006. He commuted two hours every day from White Castle to complete the last rounds of his rotations. The changes in New Orleans moved him.
“It was too depressing,” Watts said. “The city really did not look the same.”
Though he had to bounce back and forth across Louisiana to complete his education, he persevered, and in May, he graduated from Xavier – on time.
Hurricane Katrina made Watts realize that he took things for granted on a daily basis, and realize how much he missed New Orleans.
“New Orleans was a unique place, and it still is unique,” he said. “I can’t compare any other place to New Orleans.”
LaTanya Jackson, 25 – Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) Masters in Social Work
LaTanya Jackson works today as a crisis counselor for Catholic Charities in New Orleans. She canvasses neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward and East New Orleans, offering help to residents who returned to areas devastated by Katrina.
“Sometimes, they just need to know that someone is there who is willing to listen to their story,” Jackson said.
When she tells her own story, it’s easy to see how she would be able to relate to her clients.
As the 2005 school year began, Jackson could not have been happier. It was the school year she had been waiting for. Jackson was completing her master’s degree in social work at SUNO.
“Everybody was pumped up, excited and ready to go,” Jackson said. “Then Katrina struck.”
Jackson and her entire family evacuated from their Marrero home in the West Bank section of New Orleans to Auburn, Ala.
They stayed there for three days, then at a hotel in Memphis, Tenn. for a week. They returned home to find minimal damage, but there were no utilities. So they went back to Memphis for another week.
The family stayed in hotel after hotel. At one point, they had to stay in a smoking room, which made Jackson’s daughter, Tanjana, 2, ill with a sinus inflammation, she said.
She kept in touch with her colleagues and classmates to learn what Southern University would do about classes.
The New Orleans campus temporarily closed after the hurricane, and the administration invited students to attend classes at the main campus in Baton Rouge.
But there was one problem.
“It was not easy, because Southern in Baton Rouge did not have a master’s in social work program,” Jackson said.
At that point, Jackson did not know what to do. She returned to Memphis. She received a call from the SUNO administration, which had begun a count of students who would be attending classes in Baton Rouge in her program. Although hesitant at first, Jackson ultimately decided to return for classes in October.
She commuted three days a week from Marrero to Baton Rouge, which is usually about an hour’s drive, but after the hurricane could take longer. Many New Orleanians had evacuated to the capitol, increasing the city’s population and making traffic between the cities a nightmare.
Despite the obstacles, she never gave up and was able to graduate from SUNO in May.
“After all of that, today, it was truly worth it,” she said.
Ramon Griffin, 22 – Dillard University B.A. Sociology & Criminal Justice
Ramon Griffin says he has been able to accomplish the goals that he set before the hurricane changed his life. Today, he is on full scholarship at the University of Nebraska in the School of Law.
“Hurricane Katrina was the biggest hindrance, but it was also a motivating force for me,” he said.
Griffin, 22, went to a party the Saturday before Katrina hit. It was his senior year at Dillard University, and he was planning to celebrate that entire year.
“I thought my class was going to put D.U. on the map,” said Griffin, a Chicago native. “That’s why [senior year] was going to be so good.”
Instead, Hurricane Katrina shut down Dillard University. The 55-acre campus was under about 10 feet of water after the levees failed.
Griffin had been hesitant initially about evacuating, which he’d done for past false alarms such as Hurricane Ivan. But on the Sunday before the storm hit, he headed to a friend’s home in Memphis, figuring it was close enough that he could whip right back around to New Orleans if the storm didn’t prove to be a threat.
It soon became apparent that Griffin could not return to school. He received text messages from friends who were still down in New Orleans during the storm.
Watching the horrific images on television, he knew his beloved university would be closed for some time.
Griffin went home to Chicago, where he remained for about four days, then put into action his back-up plan.
He had already considered the University of Houston for law school, and decided to enroll there for the fall semester while Dillard was closed.
“I did not like it,” he said. “It was terrible.”
Griffin said he was so used to being on a small, historically Black campus that he didn’t enjoy his time at the institution. He and fellow “Katrina Kids” were labeled instantly, he said. While on campus, he would hear questions such as, “How long are those Katrina Kids going to stay here?”
The administration helped with enrollment and financial aid opportunities, but in his opinion, did not step up and address what was going on that made some displaced students feel unwelcome.
“I love Houston, but [I] just did not like the institution.”
Before Katrina, Griffin would study with friends for the LSAT, which he was scheduled to take in October 2006.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, all of my dreams and aspirations went away for a week,” he said. “I could not think of life, but had to get myself back together.”
Griffin was able to postpone taking the test until December. He took practice tests and studied every night, which would prove to be one of the hardest feats he would accomplish, he said. He had a rigorous workload at school. Meanwhile, a close friend from Dillard died in an automobile accident in Atlanta.
“It was hard as hell,” Griffin said. “I had to take the test three days after he passed away.”
But he did. And the rest is history.
Griffin returned to Dillard University in January and applied to law school that same month. Attending school in a hotel seemed attractive at first, but the novelty wore off after the first month, Griffin said. Still, he was glad to see all of his friends and classmates, and just happy to be back “home.”
“When you are away from home, you have to get back,” Griffin said. “That was my institution and I was going to support it.” He even worked alongside landscapers to revive Dillard’s campus for the traditional graduation on the Rosa Freeman Keller Avenue of the Oaks.
After all he’d been through, graduation was something to remember, he said – a “beautiful experience.”
Danielle Haney, 21 – Xavier University of Louisiana B.S. Biology
In August, Danielle Haney moved to Philadelphia to enroll in the doctoral program in immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a big move for the Zachary, La., resident, but one that is intended to fulfill her dreams.
Last year at this time, she was on the move, too, but back then Hurricane Katrina and floods were to blame.
For a time, Haney said, the disaster took away the excitement and anticipation she was feeling about graduating from Xavier University in Louisiana, one of several Gulf state colleges and universities forced temporarily to close in fall 2005.
Just days before the hurricane, Haney had taken the GRE.
“My mind was already set on graduate school,” Haney said. “I was just removed.”
Haney had been in school for only a week when Katrina emerged to threaten New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast. She had ridden out hurricanes before, but something about Katrina did not feel right. So, she packed to evacuate immediately.
“That day it just felt weird, and she did not look like she was turning,” said Haney, who kept track of the storm from Zachary, La., her hometown.
With communications from Xavier hampered, its students and faculty still scattered, Haney enrolled at Louisiana State University on Sept. 7.
She did not plan to be at LSU the entire fall semester, or try to make new friends there, she says, and sometimes she did not feel welcomed. That year, there was a controversy over the purple and gold Confederate flag flown at university football games. She felt she was just a social security number at that school. She went to class and then went home; at Xavier, she had always remained on campus and hung out with friends.
“It was kind of like a culture shock,” she said. Still, Haney said, she was focused on graduating on time and would not let the hurricane hinder that goal. She applied for graduate school by the end of November 2005 and kept studying.
She returned to Xavier when classes resumed there in January 2006 and completed her studies in April. Her graduation was scheduled for August, so Haney had about four months to reflect on the unexpected turn in her senior year. She graduated Aug. 15 with a B.S. in Biology.
Haney said that she returned to Xavier because she was truly in love with her institution and missed her friends. Katrina taught her to cherish her friendships and be thankful, because nothing lasts forever, she said.
It also taught her the importance of giving back to the school that gave her four years of memories.
“A little goes a long way,” Haney said.
Tammy Pate, 22 – Dillard University B.S. Biology
“Graduation was definitely bittersweet,” says Tammy Pate, “and I did not want the moment to end.”
Pate triumphed over many obstacles to finish her studies at Dillard University and earn her biology degree. Hurricane Katrina was only the beginning.
Pate and other family members fled to Atlanta the Sunday before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; two days later the levees failed, flooding almost 80 percent of the city and shutting down the colleges. However, several family members had stayed behind, and could not immediately be located, sending Pate into a panic.
Two days passed before she heard from her father, who was stuck in the attic of their home in East New Orleans.
Then Pate got a call on her cell phone.
“When I finally did talk to my daddy, I cried,” Pate recalled. “[I] had not known if he was dead or alive.”
Eventually, Pate’s father climbed to the roof of his house, where he waited for about 20 minutes before a helicopter rescued him. Pate’s brother and his pregnant wife stayed behind, and also had to be rescued.
Pate says she felt overwhelmed.
When it became clear that she would have to stay in Atlanta and would not be able to return to Dillard or her hometown soon, her main concern became graduating on time. Pate’s anticipation and excitement about completing her collegiate career began to drain away.
She decided to enroll at Georgia State University to make sure she remained focused. But staying focused was hard because of the adjustments she was enduring – including a major change in her personal life.
“Two weeks after I left New Orleans,” Pate said, “I found out I was pregnant.”
Pate registered for four classes at Georgia State, but completed only one.
She made up her mind to return to New Orleans in January when Dillard reopened for the spring semester.
“I truly love Dillard, and I knew that I could get everything done,” Pate said. “I was not going to throw that away just because I was pregnant.”
Pate lived with her grandparents when she returned to New Orleans.
|Xavier and Dllard Universities under construction, by Gina Batiste|
She took 17 hours of coursework during the first of two extended sessions offered when Dillard reopened, and completed her studies in April. Lazarus Mason II was born on May 5. Pate qualified for graduation in July.
Today, Pate resides in Atlanta with her son and fiancé.
She has family members in Atlanta, Texas and Louisiana who have not returned to live in New Orleans since the storm. She plans to wed Lazarus Mason next spring.
Pate aspires to be a dentist and plans to attend dental school in 2007.
Hurricane Katrina was both a good and bad experience, she says, reflecting on its impact on her life.
“Everything I own is gone – from baby years to present,” she said. “But the good thing about it is, I had my son and I am happy he was born.”
Pate knows what it means to miss New Orleans.
“I still have moments when I want to be back home, even though I know I can’t be there,” she said.
Rebecca K. Roussell is a 2006 graduate of Dillard University. Her article, “Thanks to Katrina, My First Apartment Lasted a Week,” appeared in the special section, “Hurricane Katrina – Views from America’s HBCUs,” in THE BLACK COLLEGIAN’s First Semester 2005 Super Issue.