Lawn party

Visitors get a U.Va.-style welcome.

By Neela Pal (English, Foreign Affairs ’06)
Claiborne and McNaught on the Lawn.

Claiborne and McNaught on the Lawn.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

Mary McNaught (History ’06) has never visited New Orleans. Until recently, she had no friends from the area. So when McNaught heard that between 100 and 150 students from New Orleans would be transferring temporarily to U.Va. due to Hurricane Katrina, she visited one of the few people she knew from the city: neighbor and fellow Lawn resident Jeff Claiborne (Echols ’06).

“If something happened to U.Va. and I had to relocate to a different school for a semester, what would I be thinking, what would make me feel connected,” McNaught remembers wondering. “I had stopped by [Jeff’s] room to see how his family was, and we got to talking.”

Out of that conversation emerged a working plan for a truly U.Va.-style welcome reception for the new students: a gathering on the Lawn.

“The strength of the 54 residents is that we represent so many different organizations,” McNaught explains. “If these students are seeking religious fellowship, community service or just academic advice, we can harness a lot of information for them outside of the classroom.”

That was Friday, Sept. 2.

Two days and a flurry of visits to numerous Corner merchants later, McNaught and Claiborne hosted a successful Lawn reception for the new students, who numbered 128 undergraduates and approximately two dozen graduate students. Also invited to the reception were administrators, the Lawn residents, orientation leaders and 60-odd U.Va. students originally from New Orleans.

Around the same time that Claiborne and McNaught were brainstorming in Claiborne’s Lawn room, Anthony Jones was in Florida, in the midst of some decision-making himself.  A student at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Jones had been accepted to U.Va. after a number of persistent calls to the admissions office. The only stipulation: Jones had to be at U.Va. in less than two days, to attend the orientation for new students on Sunday morning.

At the time, Jones was at his uncle’s home in Miami with his mother and younger brother. It was a destination by no means reached simply: the first leg of their trip from New Orleans to Oxford, Miss., usually a drive of two or three hours, took 12.

Jones’s father had stayed behind in New Orleans to help a friend’s bedridden mother. The last Jones heard from him before his New Orleans cell phone service collapsed, his father’s car was completely submerged in water. Almost a week passed before Jones was able to again connect with his father, who had by this time safely relocated to Texas.

“It didn’t really register, I think, what it really meant,” Jones says. “At that point, all I was thinking about was how we were going to get to Miami. I more or less felt responsible for getting my family there.”

Faced with rearranging his life once he finally settled in Miami, Jones says he viewed U.Va. as more than just an emergency schooling option. He had in fact been planning to transfer here after another year at Delgado and now found himself faced with the option much sooner than expected.

“On the one hand, I was very excited about the opportunity,” Jones remembers. “But on the other hand, I didn’t want to leave my family so soon after everything that had happened in the past four or five days.”

But by Saturday night, Jones had begun another journey — this one northbound to U.Va. By the time of the Lawn reception on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 4, Jones had undergone a succession of U.Va-sponsored orientation activities. Despite his exhaustion, Jones says he did not overlook the concerted efforts his new school had taken to accommodate him.

“Everyone here has been really supportive and gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I feel at home here,” Jones says. “It’s hard to find something I don’t like about this school. And I can’t complain too much because [my family and I] ended up better than so many other people did.”