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Improvised semester: a Tulane senior reflects

This story was published on BU Today December 2, 2005.

A Tulane University senior majoring in Latin American studies, Melissa Ann Taylor is among the hundreds of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina who enrolled at BU in early September. In anticipation of Tulane President Scott Cowen’s December 1 address at BU to Tulane students enrolled in area colleges, Taylor wrote the following column about her experiences this semester, exclusively for BU Today.

 

It was August 2005. I was a senior at Tulane University and no stranger to hurricanes. In fact, storm evacuations had become a pretty regular part of my fall semesters.

Okay, honestly, there was nothing “regular” about them. They were fantastic. They were my southern university’s snow day substitution, and students called them “hurrications” for a reason. They created caravan road trips in spontaneous spring-break-like fashion. I owe some of my favorite college memories to hurricanes. But “hurrication” is a word I no longer use.

Katrina was different from the get-go. Normally, students’ excitement would increase in tandem with a storm’s intensity. But this time there was no excitement, because there was no student body. The hurricane was heading for New Orleans just as about 7,000 undergraduates were returning from summer vacation. I spent the first half of Saturday, August 27, the day before the storm hit, helping freshmen move into dorms, and the second half driving myself out of the city. Incidentally, I had to call my parents in the neighboring state of Texas that afternoon to let them know, Surprise, I’m coming home! With a few of my closest friends . . . 36 of them, to be exact.

Close call

With most of the car space taken up by people, we’d had room to pack only the essentials. For example, I had wisely stuffed a duffel bag full of about five swimsuits with a few pairs of shorts and tank tops, and I’d luckily thought to grab my laptop at the last minute.

After spending 18 hours driving a distance that normally takes less than 8, the last car pulled into my circle driveway, now filled with Tulane-decaled cars with plates from as far away as California, New York, and Oregon. We spent the entire next day swimming, barbecuing, and watching the Weather Channel, whose news anchors by now we all knew by name. Even after the storm hit, we thought our school had dodged a bullet once again. That was until the levees began to break. That was until we saw our city start to fall apart.

Because the storm temporarily disabled the Tulane computer network and all citywide services, we had no e-mail and no cell phones. But word spread quickly over radio, news stations, and landlines that universities across the country were opening their doors to Tulane students. It didn’t take long before there was a buzz among students about BU. Rumor had it that the University was not only offering open enrollment to all Tulane students, but also helping with housing and squeezing students into classes that were already closed. I came to Boston with one duffel bag, five swimsuits, a few pairs of shorts and tank tops, and about 1,000 anxieties. But all that I’d heard was true. BU welcomed me with open arms.

Ad libitum

The fall semester at Tulane was canceled on a Friday. I flew to Boston on Tuesday and was sitting in Spanish class at 8 a.m. on Thursday trying to figure out what had just happened. In choosing where to attend school, I had had two days to make a decision that takes most people two years.

We knew that no matter where we went, this semester was going to be trying. I signed my second lease of the year, this one for four months on a five-bedroom apartment I now share with six Tulane roommates in Allston. We have no Internet access, no TV, and a rented couch that’s in our kitchen.

I often find myself sitting in class next to BU seniors dressed in business suits either coming from or going to job interviews. With graduation looming in the near future, they are preparing for the next step in their lives. I too think about life after graduation, but mostly my mind is focused on returning to New Orleans. Interviews and LSATs and grad school applications have unintentionally fallen to the wayside. They are priorities from what now seems like a past life.

It’s been an adventure, to say the least, but I like to think that my peers and I made the best of a bad situation. Our time away from Tulane was approached as an opportunity to experience another part of the country, a domestic semester abroad. And I think it says a lot about the Tulane community that so many of us did it together.

Beantown jumbo

I would be lying if I said I had no anxieties about going back to New Orleans next month. I realize that the dynamics of the university and of the city are changing. I keep hearing that the school we’re returning to will be a smaller, more focused university, and I’m not exactly sure what that means. But you could tell me I’m returning to a one-room schoolhouse in a city populated by extraterrestrials, and I’d still be there come January 17. And I’m pretty sure I’d be surrounded by plenty of my classmates.

This is no offense to Boston. If anything, many of us are sad to leave. Boston has been our home away from home, a refuge for so many Tulane refugees and a great experience we will carry with us when we graduate. We cannot say thank you enough for the hospitality this city and this school have shown us. Boston, you will forever have a couch to crash on during Mardi Gras.

Pre-Katrina, if I saw a BU sweatshirt walk past me on the street, I would have thought, Brrrrr! I would have thought hockey, and I would have thought Red Sox. But now, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to meet a BU student, alum, or faculty member without recalling the generosity of this place. And I’d like to think that Bostonians might now have different associations with New Orleans. When they see a Tulane sweatshirt, I’m sure they will think Mardi Gras, crawfish, and Bourbon Street. But I hope they will also think: survivor.