UC Berkeley Plans to Send Hurricane Katrina Students Back to New Orleans Schools By ZACHARY SLOBIG Special to The Planet
Dante Green and his girlfriend Krystina Brown, both undergrads at Xavier University in New Orleans, evacuated to Atlanta just before Hurricane Katrina hit and jumped at the offer to come study at UC Berkeley when the waters rose around their campus.
Now Xavier has regained power, hauled away debris, and is calling for their students to return. UC Berkeley officials have decided not to extend visiting student status for the group from New Orleans, but some students say they don’t want to return to a ghost city.
“We don’t know what we’re going back to. Mayor Nagin says the city is inhospitable, and we may have to live on cruise ships,” Green said earlier this week. “There’s 700 people ahead of us on the waiting list for apartments.”
Katrina scattered 18,000 college students nationwide, and Cal welcomed 77 in the wake of the disaster. Cal officials say these students were welcomed only as “visiting students” and are wary of undermining higher education in New Orleans by depriving schools the tuition base they will need to return to normality.
Student organizers at Cal have circulated a petition to gather support to allow students the option to continue their studies into the spring.
Tamara Johnson, a graduate student in the Social Welfare department of Southern University, gratefully arrived at Cal on Sept. 8, her birthday. The Berkeley Social Welfare Department led her to believe that she would have the option to stay for the spring semester based on her performance, she says.
“This university ought to be ashamed of itself, treating us like refugees,” she said. “They want us to evacuate twice.”
Johnson, who has eagerly attended classes at Cal and worked in an internship in Oakland’s Summit Adult Day Health Care Center while sleeping on couches since early September, is distraught at the prospect of returning to New Orleans.
“There’s nothing left of my school,” she said. “I thought Berkeley had given me the best birthday gift ever when I arrived here, but it looks like they’re taking it back.”
Officials at Southern University, Johnson’s home school in New Orleans, say the school is ready to welcome returning students.
“We’ve been working 12 hour days to get this campus back in shape,” said Gus Bennet, student affairs spokesperson. “The pre-enrollment turnout has been amazing.”
Roughly half of the students at Southern University have enrolled to date and the school is busily rebuilding in anticipation of reopening on Jan. 17. Students returning to Southern will be housed in FEMA subsidized travel trailers.
Berkeley officials say they have been counseling visiting students who want to continue at Cal through the transfer process, but these students would have to wait until fall 2006 to apply. For the spring semester, they could take classes at a local community college or on an extension basis.
“The university cannot create a new admissions process for a particular group of students,” said Esther Gulli, executive administrative officer for the vice chancellor of student affairs.
Some Berkeley students say Chancellor Birgeneau is missing a golden opportunity to set an example both by doing the right thing for these students and by increasing minority enrollment at Cal since some of the students were displaced from historically black colleges such as Xavier.
“This is no time for bureaucratic excuses,” said Yvette Felarca, spokesperson for By Any Means Necessary, the student group responsible for circulating the petition on behalf of the displaced students. “In the worst American humanitarian tragedy ever, this is the time to make exceptions.”
Some California schools have made exceptions and decided to allow students displaced from New Orleans to stay on into the spring semester. Saint Mary’s College in Moraga and Cal State East Bay have both decided to allow displaced students to finish out the year.
UC officials say they will not break agreements made with the New Orleans schools to return students once the schools were capable of receiving them. “Our hands are tied. We must follow the rules of the other institutions,” said Gulli. “If these schools don’t get the tuition, they will go under, and the Gulf region needs higher education to recover.”
Dante Green says he understands that it is in the best interest of his home school to gather its flock, but he doubts that his own best interests will be served by returning.
“It’s all up in the air,” he said. “How am I supposed to concentrate on getting into med school when I don’t even know if I’ll have a place to live?”