Strangers no more

Katrina evacuees find academic high ground in Central Mass.

By Pamela H. Sacks



Kevin Marshall describes his stopover at the College of the Holy Cross as “my own version of a semester abroad.”

To Kevin, whose home is in Metairie, La., New England may, indeed, seem like a foreign land. Yet, he has settled in at Holy Cross with ease.

Kevin, 19, arrived in Worcester in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to continue his education without a break. He was supposed to have started classes at Loyola University the day after Katrina roared through New Orleans at the end of August.

“It’s a lot like Loyola,” he said of Holy Cross. In New Orleans, he added, “it would probably be 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. But the schools themselves are very similar.” He will stay through the end of the semester.

LaTrina Antoine, a sophomore at Holy Cross, was busy with freshman orientation as Katrina geared up to devastate the Gulf Coast. LaTrina first heard about the hurricane while watching TV news. Then her mother called to say she and other family members were evacuating.

“She said, `It’s headed straight for New Orleans,’” Latrina recalled, as she and Kevin sat at a table in Cool Beans, the campus coffee shop, and reflected on the effect the disaster has had on their lives. “I was like, `Why didn’t you leave yesterday?’ I was afraid of traffic.”

LaTrina, 19, was born and raised in New Orleans and came to Holy Cross because she was eager to “see other places.” Her twin sister, Arianne, a student at Southeastern University in Hammond, La.., is on an internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

LaTrina’s family escaped the worst of the storm and made it to Houston. But her mother and her relatives lost nearly everything, including just about all of the family photographs. Luckily, LaTrina had taken one very precious picture with her when she returned to college from her summer break.

“Thank God that on the spur of the moment I decided to take a picture of my parents holding my sister and me right after we were born,” she said, smiling. “It was taken in the hospital.”

Katrina turned life upside down for thousands of college students from across the nation. An estimated 100,000 who attended schools in Louisiana and Mississippi scrambled for other places to study, at least temporarily, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been tracking the numbers.

Here in Worcester, Holy Cross was one of 27 Jesuit sister schools that agreed to accept displaced Loyola students for the fall semester. Eleven are now at the hillside campus. Clark University set up an expedited admissions process and has two students from Tulane University and one from the University of New Orleans. Assumption College has two students from the Gulf Coast. WPI is offering two free online courses through the Sloan Semester, a collaboration of U.S. colleges and universities.

Holy Cross was careful about accepting only those students who would benefit from its liberal arts curriculum.

“Whereas some opened the door wide, we wanted to talk about their academic program at Loyola,” said Margaret Freije, associate dean of the college. “Loyola is a university, so they have programs in marketing and communications, and we don’t have the course work that would help those students very much. We wanted to know they could do the work and succeed.”

Ms. Freije spoke to each of the students on the telephone before they arrived in Worcester to find out what courses they might want to take. She contacted professors to ask if they were interested in accepting students two or three weeks after the semester had started.

“The faculty were extremely generous,” she said. “They said, `Absolutely, send them to me. I’ll catch them up. We’ll get the material to them.’”

All reports indicate that the students are doing extremely well, both academically and socially, she said.

“We have a Loyola student in the choir, and a Loyola student is the lead in the fall play,” Ms. Freije said with a laugh. “They’re a great group, they really are.”

LaTrina spent anxious days waiting to see if the mammoth Katrina – and, later, Rita – would uproot her family – or worse. After barely settling down in Houston, Latrina’s family evacuated to Dallas to escape Rita and then returned to Houston.

LaTrina lived in east New Orleans, which for days was under 6 feet of water. The home she grew up in is gone. Her mother and nearly all of her extended family plan to make Houston home.

Kevin’s parents and sister left Metairie, in Jefferson Parish just west of New Orleans, the day before the hurricane hit. His mother grabbed the photo albums. They took their dog, Candy, climbed into two cars and headed north to Natchez, Miss., where they put Candy in a kennel. They settled down in a Red Cross shelter set up in a church.

“Monday, as the storm was coming through, the power went out,” Kevin, 19, recounted. “That wasn’t pleasant to be in a Red Cross shelter with 200 people and no electricity.”

They remained there for two days and then moved to a hotel in Vidalia, La., across the river. Kevin, who is majoring in the classics, wasn’t about to lose valuable educational time. He got online and started searching for a school to attend and discovered the offer from the other Jesuit colleges. He started e-mailing and calling. Holy Cross officials first asked him to fly up for an interview; he replied that that would be difficult.

“Two days later, Holy Cross said, `Just come up,’” Kevin said.

Kevin and his mother drove to Alexandria, La., where he flew to Houston and then to Boston. The following Monday – a week after he would have returned to Loyola – he was cracking the books at Holy Cross.

That wasn’t the end of the trouble for his mother, Lynda, his father, Charles, and his sister, Laura, 16. They went back to their house after Labor Day and discovered 8 inches of water on the first floor and a tree in the swimming pool. As Rita approached, they left Houston, where they had found an apartment, and returned again to their house to wait out the storm. Later, they returned to Houston, where Mrs. Marshall’s employer, an insurance company, placed her in a job and Laura started high school.

“I think we handled it pretty well,” Kevin said with a shy smile.

LaTrina’s family made arrangements for accommodations in Houston as reports of Katrina worsened. Her mother, Jeaneariear, took their shih tzu, Tiffany, and Jeni, a favorite cat, and departed by car with her siblings. They shared an apartment in Houston until they were forced to leave for Dallas, just ahead of Rita. The family is returning to Houston, where many of them will remain permanently.

“Too many memories,” LaTrina remarked of New Orleans.

Latrina, an English literature major, found Holy Cross while on a search for a college with an excellent academic reputation. “I stumbled on Holy Cross by chance, through an admissions recruiter,” she explained.

She plans to go on to law school and eventually will return to the Gulf Coast to be near her family. But she is not likely to live in New Orleans ever again. She expressed deep anger that the levees had not been properly maintained. They were breached, resulting in flooding of large portions of the city.

“They say it will never be the same,” LaTrina said of the city of her birth. “People can’t grasp the repercussions – and people don’t want to.”

Kevin feels differently.

Before arriving in Massachusetts, Kevin had not been farther north than New York. Reflecting on the months to come, he said, “I hear it’s even colder up here in January than December. When it snows, I’ll probably run around like a little kid.”

Nevertheless, he is eager to get back to New Orleans. “I’m disappointed to hear about people who leave and will not come back,” Kevin said. “It’s my city. I love it.”