Storm surge

U.Va. welcomes students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

By U.Va. News Services
Students displaced by Katrina register for U.Va. classes.

Students displaced by Katrina register for U.Va. classes.
U.Va. News Services/Dan Addison.

With the same concentrated energy of the now infamous Katrina, University administrators from across Grounds rose to President John T. Casteen III’s Aug. 31 challenge and took the necessary steps to accommodate 140 additional incoming students this fall.

The academically qualified students, most of them Virginia residents and all of them enrolled in hurricane-ravaged institutions in the New Orleans area, arrived on Grounds over Labor Day weekend as visiting, nondegree students who, over the course of the fall semester, will earn credits that can be transferred back to their home institutions once those institutions reopen.

Among them are 128 undergraduates — 109 in the College, eight in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and six in the School of Architecture — all of whom are being housed on University Grounds. In addition, there are approximately two dozen graduate students — 12 in the School of Law — and another dozen or more still in the process of enrolling in the Darden and Curry schools. Arrangements for a special financial-aid fund for need-qualified students were being investigated, pending potential adjustments in federal financial aid rules to provide more conventional financial aid for those who need it.

Orienting the new arrivals

A special orientation session for U.Va.’s new arrivals occurred on Sept. 4. Well before the appointed 2 p.m. start time, students and parents began to fill the hallway outside Newcomb Hall Ballroom. There, they waited to meet Jack Blackburn, dean of admission, who was handing out individual letters of acceptance to U.Va.

Once inside the room, they were greeted by representatives of the University community — staff members from dining, housing, academic advising, the registrar’s office, student financial services, information technology and the dean of students office — who had come both to welcome and to offer guidance.

Many of the students sported green Tulane t-shirts. Among them, huddled together near the back of the room, sat Jill Zimmerman and
her friend Kathleen Cardinale. Both are sophomores at Tulane and admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Zimmerman, an orientation leader at her home school, had moved into her Tulane dorm on Aug. 24. The day the hurricane warnings came, she was at Tulane’s gym, but came back to her room to find 10 messages from her mother saying to “get out of town.”

Neither Zimmerman nor Cardinale thought too much about it. They packed up enough clothes for four days, grabbed their computers and headed for Dallas with fellow classmates in a caravan of five cars.

Because they had to take a circuitous route, it took them 13 hours to make the typically eight-hour, 500-mile trip. From Dallas, they traveled to Austin where they met up with the hurricane.

Several days later, they finally navigated their way home to Northern Virginia.

Zimmerman’s high school guidance counselor was the first one to tell her about the opportunity to apply to U.Va. for the fall semester.

Both Zimmerman and Cardinale admitted to feeling some “culture shock,” as they put it, after arriving in Charlottesville and seeing U.Va.’s size. “It feels huge compared to Tulane,” Zimmerman said.

With its student body of nearly 20,000, compared to Tulane’s 7,700, the University was “intimidating,” Cardinale said. “And I’m not used to getting lost. But it’ll be a good experience for us.”

“This will never be Tulane,” Zimmerman added, “but I’m looking forward to the experience.”

A U.Va. welcome

Once the assembly of more than 300 students and parents was in place, Shamim Sisson, senior associate dean of students, welcomed U.Va.’s newest arrivals to the institution.

“All of you are facing a new semester unlike any that you expected or planned,” she said.

Sisson let the students know that they would find, in Charlottesville, “a welcoming community and supportive environment” that would allow them “to take advantage of the rich curriculum and exceptional faculty” that U.Va. offered.

“Most of you will settle in quickly and well, but there may be a bit of a disconnect at times: life seeming to go on as usual here while people and places you care deeply about face monumental struggles,” she added.

“This is perfectly normal, but if it starts distracting you too much or you just want to talk about it, we have wonderful counseling resources at our Student Health Center that are free and readily available.

“We want you to be able to look back on this time and say that while many parts of your life and your plans were disrupted, your academic career was only minimally interrupted because you had a great semester at the University of Virginia,” she said. “In the midst of all this uncertainty, you are safe and you are here — for which we are very grateful.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9 - 22, 2005, issue of Inside UVA.