Thursday, September 08, 2005

St. Mary's College Offers Refuge For Displaced Students

This is another "feel good" story about Katrina. St. Mary's College is run by the Christian Brothers and has been in the Bay Area for at least a century. Some of the students in the interview were originally from the Bay Area and still have family here, so it's not too surprising they came to St. Mary's. Some are not. And, as the article notes, not all colleges and universities who have agreed to accept students displaced by Katrina have agreed to waive tuition and fees. St. Mary's has. (And St. Mary's--a small, private, Catholic college--ain't cheap!)

The other thing to note: no government agencies were involved, no rolls of red tape. These folks did it the old-fashioned way, on the phone, person-to-person, and had everything arranged over the holiday weekend.

MORAGA - Donald Mau and Annie Barry were in a daze Tuesday morning as they registered for classes at St. Mary's College.

Just a week earlier, the couple had been students at Loyola University in New Orleans, ready to start their junior year as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city. As the storm neared, they joined the exodus of evacuees, putting in thousands of road and air miles in their quest for safety.

Their journey landed them and at least seven others at St. Mary's, which offered a year of free tuition to displaced students. Mau and Barry were exhausted and grateful Tuesday after attending an impromptu orientation session on the Moraga campus and preparing to resume college life.

"We're still in shock, really," said Barry, a Hercules native. "I think we've all had little breakdowns here and there."
The past week has been especially painful for Mau, who grew up in New Orleans. His family's home was destroyed by the hurricane and the resulting floods, forcing his parents to return to their native Honduras.

Mau's apartment first was damaged by the flood, then looted as chaos took over the city. It's unclear what the future holds for the New Orleans colleges, but Mau hasn't given up on returning.

"It's my home, man," he said. "It may not be much of one now, but I'm definitely getting back there."

Students in the hurricane zone were caught in the tough position of trying to escape with their lives while also worrying whether their college plans would be halted. Schools around the country have opened their doors to those students, but few have offered to waive fees.

St. Mary's has asked students to pay what they can, but the college is willing to absorb most or all of the cost if needed, said Michael Beseda, a St. Mary's vice president in charge of enrollment. Tuition, textbooks and room and board will be provided to students who need them, he said.

Several students and relatives at the St. Mary's orientation said officials at the small Catholic school returned their phone calls promptly about the displaced students from Loyola, Tulane, Dillard and Xavier. St. Mary's administrators worked through the Labor Day weekend to make arrangements, students said.

"These kids are going to need nurturing," said Jacqueline Watson of San Leandro, whose daughter, Courtney, came to St. Mary's from Xavier University. "I am appreciative of what they're doing (at St. Mary's)."

St. Mary's officials pointed out the school's counseling director to the somber students Tuesday, saying they knew the evacuees would need someone to speak with.

"We're going to try to keep in very close contact with them," Beseda said.

But Martinez resident Joy Caudel marveled at the calm demeanor of her granddaughter, 17-year-old Loyola freshman Kelci Miller, who started a "Katrina stole my tuition" Web site for displaced students even as she left all her belongings in her dorm room.

"I would think she should have some problems, but she seems to be doing fine," Caudel said.

Watson said she has scheduled a counseling appointment for her daughter, but also said she believes students would be best served by continuing their routines.

"The most important thing for me was to get her back up and running," she said. "She wants to be an (obstetrician-gynecologist) so that's 12 years in school. She doesn't have time to sit out a semester."