One student's struggles after Katrina

After fleeing New Orleans, Edwards will graduate from Stevenson on Friday

May 20, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Shalon Edwards felt her world was in perfect order.

She had close friends. She seemed on track to graduate from Xavier University in New Orleans at age 21 and proceed straight to medical school. Then, her dorm mother called a meeting. Something about a storm.

Hurricane Katrina turned Edwards' young life upside down. The storm ended her time at Xavier and pushed her into unhappy stints at two Virginia universities. But at a deeper level, it left her feeling bereft of a place to call home or an obvious path forward.

Now, she's 23, graduating from Stevenson University on Friday with a biology degree and a job waiting for her as a lab technician at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She has helped rebuild houses in the city she fled almost five years ago.

"It taught me that you can't count on anything going the way you planned it," the Virginia Beach, Va., native says of the storm. "You have to take time to enjoy the small things you're doing at any given moment."

"She knows how bad life can get," says Morgan Somerville, who works in the admissions office at Stevenson and has organized student trips to help rebuild New Orleans the last two springs. "But she knows that it keeps going, and that's a message that she's able to share with a lot of people."

Somerville says Edwards has even helped her make certain decisions by reminding her that life is too short to waste time vacillating. "She'll tell me, 'Do it, Morgan. Why wouldn't you?' " Somerville says. "Not a lot of students would tell an adult that. But she's given me the extra push I needed."

Edwards had always wanted to be a doctor and heard that Xavier placed more African-Americans in medical school than any university in the country. She had never been to New Orleans before her parents took her to move into her freshman dorm in August 2004. It was hardly love at first sight.

"It looked kind of rough," she recalls.

Xavier is a Catholic university with strict curfews and rules against males visiting the rooms of female students. Freshmen had limited opportunities to take in the city's famous cuisine and nightlife. But Edwards formed tight bonds with her roommate, Natasha Williams, and a dorm mate from New York, Kristina "Mouse" Boadi. "You never saw one of us without the others," she says.

By the time she returned for her sophomore year in 2005, everything about Xavier felt perfect. She had friends, Boadi had a car, curfews were looser.

Then, her dorm mother called that meeting and told the students to consider leaving the city.

Edwards didn't think much of the warning. She had evacuated for a hurricane freshman year and returned to find that it had barely rained. But Williams planned to ride to Mississippi with a friend, and Boadi was also leaving during the storm. Edwards figured she'd tag along with Williams. She packed two shirts, two pairs of jeans, her Xavier sweatshirt and her laptop.

"That's how unserious I was about it," she says.

Little did she know she would not see the rest of her belongings for four months.

Hunkered down in a motel room in Laurel, Miss., Edwards and Williams watched Katrina's winds peel the letters off a Waffle House sign across the road. The lights winked out and the phone lines went dead. The next day, they couldn't find a working gas station or a road that wasn't strewn with flattened trees. After a difficult journey, they ended up in Galveston, Texas, and from there, Edwards flew home to Virginia.

But her difficulties were just beginning.

Xavier suspended school and instead of waiting to return, Edwards enrolled at Virginia State University. On her second day there, a pool party broke out at the Days Inn where she was staying, and three strange men wandered into her room uninvited. They eventually left, but she was so disconcerted that she left Virginia State the next day. From there, she went to Old Dominion. But she hated the large, impersonal nature of the place. Edwards is an orderly soul, and she could not accept that her carefully laid plans for college had unraveled so drastically.

"I felt depressed, lonely and out of place," she says. "I didn't let people know how it was all affecting me. I just felt so strongly that this wasn't how it was supposed to be."

She took a year off, lived and worked at home, and saw a therapist.

"It helped me put things in perspective," she says. "Now, that this had happened, I needed to find a way to move forward."

As she looked for a new college, a matchmaking survey told her that Villa Julie (now Stevenson) would be a good fit. Again, she didn't see her new home until she arrived for classes in 2007 and again, she had second thoughts. "Everybody had already formed their groups, and I was older than everybody," she says. "I was kind of lonely again."

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