Loyola opens its doors to help sister schools

September 10, 2005|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Brandon Bettencourtt was supposed to be a freshman at Loyola University New Orleans. He was supposed to be taking business courses. He was supposed to have his own clothes.

But yesterday, Bettencourtt was walking around the campus of Baltimore's Loyola College, on his way to a philosophy class, wearing a Magic Johnson basketball jersey that belongs to a friend.

As he twirled a few strands of gray that run through his long black hair, Bettencourtt, 18, smiled ruefully. "Before Katrina, the gray was shorter," he said.

Bettencourtt is one of thousands of college students who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and have had to scramble to find a way to continue their education.

Virtually every Maryland college is offering admission to students whose universities have shut down because of Katrina. But Loyola, which has a sister institution in the Big Easy, felt it had a obligation. It decided to waive tuition for any student displaced by the storm.

So far, more than 80 students have enrolled at the North Baltimore college, most of them from Loyola University, straining the capacity of dorms that were already full and ensuring that the school will lose money this semester, said the Rev. Brian Linnane, its president.

But the move was approved by school officials, and Linnane said the sacrifice is worth it. "I wanted to serve those students who are displaced, and I wanted to support the financial viability of our sister schools," he said.

Yesterday, Loyola held orientation for the newcomers, helping them enroll in classes, encouraging them to sign up for club sports and offering them financial assistance.

"For those of you who can't afford your books for whatever reason, just go into the bookstore and get your books and tell them your name. We'll help," said David C. Haddad, Loyola's vice president of academic affairs.

Most of the new students are from Baltimore or the Mid-Atlantic region, but several are New Orleans natives. Stephen Pichon, a senior at Loyola in New Orleans, was stranded in his grandfather's home in Gentilly near Lake Pontchartrain before escaping via boat.

Pichon said he decided to enroll at Maryland's Loyola because he could stay with family friends who live on Charles Street. "I'm not really sure what neighborhood it's in; I've never been in Baltimore before," Pichon said.

In Louisiana, he said, he and five relatives stayed in the house for several days, eating potato chips, canned tuna and cookies while the waters rose around them. "We weren't sure how bad it would be, but after a while we realized it was the worst we've ever seen," Pichon said.

Pichon and his family were picked up by a boat and taken to a nearby freeway, where they got a ride into Houston on a passing bus.

"Our whole lives are in New Orleans, and all of it got washed away in the flood," he said.

Bettencourtt and his family left their Lakeview home Aug. 28, joining tens of thousands of New Orleans-area residents who heeded pleas to evacuate before the storm hit. He packed only two pairs of shorts and several T-shirts because he thought he would return in a few days.

His parents packed an ice chest full of cookies, cherry-flavored Pop Tarts, drinks and a ham before starting to drive toward a military base in Meridian, Miss. The drive normally is three hours but took more than 12 hours on jammed roadways, Bettencourtt said.

Still, he thought he'd be back soon. Power was spotty in Meridian, so he didn't watch television for several days. When he finally watched the news, Bettencourtt's heart sank.

"It's going to be months," he said.

His family decided to go to Virginia Beach, where they have friends. Some gave Bettencourtt clothes, including the basketball jersey and some oversized shorts. "I wear baggy clothes anyway, so this isn't so bad," he said.

While Pichon and Bettencourtt were fleeing New Orleans, Loyola College officials in Baltimore were busy preparing for an influx of students. The Association of Jesuit College and Universities asked its 27 institutions to accept students from New Orleans, and admissions officers here canceled other plans and began accepting applications.

Applicants just had to fax proof that they were enrolled at a New Orleans-area school before they were offered a spot, said Bill Bossemeyer, Loyola's dean of admissions. About 160 students applied and virtually all were accepted.

"Thank God our fax machine worked over the weekend," Bettencourtt said.

About half of the new students will live on campus, where about 3,200 undergraduates were already enrolled. Even though the makeshift housing arrangements -- some doubles became triples -- are a little crowded, the new students said they didn't mind. Loyola's dorms are consistently ranked among the nicest in the country, according to college guides.

"Much better than the rooms in New Orleans," said Ashley Merheb, a junior majoring in communications from Loyola New Orleans.

Many of the students said they aren't sure what has happened to their homes, but they hoped school would help take their mind off their worries.

Pichon said that as he was leaving his grandfather's home, he remembered to grab his new laptop computer.

"I took everything that I needed for school," he said. "Once I start taking classes, I'll get back into the groove."

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