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The Nose

Shelter From the Storm

Posted 9/14/2005

Your bags are packed. You’re ready to go. You’re both nervous and excited. Nervous because you’re leaving your old friends behind and because you’re going to be so far away from home. Excited because you get to be a “new, unique person, different from the one in Baltimore.” You’re off to college, a 17-year-old incoming freshman . . . at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Then Hurricane Katrina cuts your first semester there just a tad short—so short that all you have time to do is leave some things in your dorm room and run like hell back to the safety and shelter of Baltimore. Your father spends Saturday night driving through Alabama so you can get a flight out of Birmingham, back to Baltimore on Sunday. But you figure you’ll be back as soon as the storm damage is cleared up. You feel that way, at least, until the levee breaks and leaves New Orleans a lake of death and destruction. So, on Tuesday morning, Aug. 30, your father and your aunt start wildly calling Maryland universities to see if any of them will let you take a few classes. The timing is urgent because school is already starting. The response your aunt, who in this case is part of the secret society known as the Nose, gets to her first two calls to state-funded schools—Towson University and the University of Baltimore—is an unequivocal and resounding “no.”

No? After being bounced around from department to department at both schools, your aunt gets to the offices with the authority to make such decisions. “I’m just trying to see if you’ll let her take some classes. I’m not asking you to admit her as a full-time student,” she says to disembodied voices at both schools. The response from both: “Absolutely not!”

Completely perplexed and now starting to get angry, your aunt turns to a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who tells her to call a specific person involved with admissions. She leaves a message for him. Now we’re getting somewhere. Then the aunt and the father talk. He’s having much better luck. He’s been directed to the same person at Hopkins. He’s also talked to Goucher College and the University of Maryland. All three schools have been receptive. All three have jumped on the problem. They’re all trying to see what they can do.

At midafternoon on Aug. 30, Gov. Robert Ehrlich—who demonstrates a lot more understanding and compassion than the University of Baltimore and Towson University—holds a brief press conference at which he says all state colleges and universities should take in all students from Maryland whose schools are shut down because of Katrina. By the time the guv makes his announcement, the 17-year-old student has been given full admission to the University of Maryland’s honors program, to which she had originally been admitted when she was first applying to colleges but turned down in favor of her father’s alma mater, Tulane.

We wanted to ask the guv what he thought about the initial action—or more accurately inaction—of both Towson and U of B. But he never did return the Nose’s phone calls. Neither did his press office.

When asked to explain why they wouldn’t let our college girl take even a few classes while waiting for things to clear up in New Orleans, officials at both schools had similar responses.

“We weren’t prepared,” says Louise Shulack, Towson’s director of undergraduate admissions. Shulack says she became aware of the problems of Maryland’s refugee students on Aug. 31. She says that even though Towson has more students than it expected this semester and not enough space for even more students, the school has since decided to direct students to its nondegree program.

“It’s not that we don’t care,” Shulack says. “We just weren’t prepared.” She says she believes the school has now taken in between 20 and 30 refugee students.

U of B spokesman Chris Hart echoes Shulack. He says that it wasn’t until around mid-day on Aug. 30 that “we are beginning to realize we need to do something.” He says they had a late afternoon meeting to hash out what the university needed to do to help. And he says the school is now admitting Katrina students on a provisional basis.

Meanwhile, at College Park, the 17-year-old has already learned some lessons you don’t usually learn in school. When Katrina was predicted to be a less vicious storm than it turned out to be, she figured that she would be riding it out in her dorm room at Tulane and that it would be a “bonding experience.” And, what she really wanted to do, until the levee broke on Tuesday morning, washing out any chance of a quick return, was “go down there and help.”

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