Open arms embrace displaced students

As Loyola's semester ends, those who fled New Orleans reflect on their growth, gratitude

December 21, 2005|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTER

Catherine M. Weymann used to be a quiet nerd, secluded in her college dorm room, studying hard.

Then a hurricane swept through and changed her life.

Weymann evacuated from Loyola University of New Orleans with two pillowcases of belongings and a scrapbook of her grandmother's memories. A few weeks and a plane ride later, she enrolled at Loyola College in Baltimore and started taking classes.

Suddenly, the junior wasn't tied down in her hometown, and she began to explore the East Coast. She traveled to cities she had never seen, including New York and Washington. She had roommates for the first time in her life, people who didn't share her neat habits and her tastes, but who became friends.

"I have made closer friends here, and lots more of them," she said. "I have experienced so much here that I feel for the first time I am really living."

Now it is time to go home. And despite her positive experiences, she can't wait for the warm weather (it was in the 70s and sunny last week in New Orleans) and the flat landscape that makes moving around easier because of her physical disabilities.

Weymann is one of 70 students enrolled at Loyola, Tulane and Xavier universities who came to Loyola College in Baltimore after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Loyola College, like Jesuit universities and colleges across the country, took students in, admitting almost everyone who applied from a school affected by the hurricane and offering a semester tuition-free.

Of 3,800 students at Loyola New Orleans, 80 percent found another place to spend a semester. About 1,500 ended up in other Jesuit schools, but others scattered across the country and are now attending about 400 colleges, according to Kristine Lelong, a spokeswoman for Loyola in New Orleans.

For some students like Weymann, whose lives and plans were suddenly yanked out from under them, the change was a good one, offering opportunities they hadn't sought and chances they had not imagined.

"I was on my own," said Amanda Piacun, who had been commuting from home to Loyola in New Orleans. "I learned a lot of things about myself."

She hated her first week in Baltimore. Her house in Louisiana was lost to flooding, and her parents were in Houston. She didn't know her roommates.

But as time went on, she said, she began to adjust and make friends.

"I am really excited to go home," Piacun said, particularly to get back to a normal routine in her city.

She knows she will be upset by the dead trees and the lack of green in some places, but her college was barely touched and remains an oasis in a city still struggling from devastation.

Once Baltimore's Loyola realized it would be taking in so many students, the college hired Sister Charmaine Krohe to coordinate services for the newcomers.

She accepted the donations from other students and community groups and doled them out to the new arrivals. She helped students get adjusted, gave them advice and counseling when they needed it and made lots of visits to their rooms to see how they were doing.

Several students said the welcome they got from Loyola was warm and generous.

"They have treated us wonderfully," Piacun said. "I am ever grateful to them for the guidance. I feel like being here I have found a second home."

For some students, the experience has been so great, they aren't sure they want to leave.

Mohamed Diakite was supposed to be a freshman at Loyola in New Orleans in the fall. An African student whose parents now live in Indonesia, he never really felt connected to any place in the United States.

Now he is hoping to stay at Loyola in Baltimore, and he has filled out an application to transfer to the school.

Diakite said after the hurricane hit, his mother and father thought it would be a good idea to keep him closer to relatives in Virginia.

Similar cases have cropped up at other colleges around the country, particularly for freshmen who had no sense of place or allegiance to their university in New Orleans and don't want to start again.

But most colleges who took displaced students have told them they must leave after one semester and that if they want to stay, they will have to cut ties with their New Orleans institution and then apply and be accepted into their college here just like any other student.

Diakite is hoping Baltimore's Loyola will allow him to stay.

"I don't want to go back," he said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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