September 13, 2005

Displaced Tulanians Adjust to Cornell

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“I was a wreck a week ago,” said Tulane refugee Jenna Markham ’08, a native of coastal Mississippi towns Gulfport and Pass Christian. “I was still trying to find out if my father was alive, if my friends were alive.”

Markham’s father survived Hurricane Katrina; her Gulfport apartment didn’t.

“It’s nothing but a slab now,” she said. “My father’s house in Pass Christian is in much better shape – only three trees fell on it. It’s still standing, but it’s nowhere near liveable right now.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway. The city’s gone. 90 percent of the buildings are destroyed. I saw some random aerial shots, and there was nothing but sticks and rubble. My Dad was there when the storm hit. He said it smelled like death in the city.”

As she waits anxiously to hear from her Mississippi friends, Jenna is settling into her new Ithaca apartment with fellow Tulanian Lindsay Oliver ’08, of Rockville, NY.

Oliver was with Markham in New Orleans as Huricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.

“I couldn’t get a flight home at the time,” said Oliver, “but it wasn’t clear how bad the storm was actually going to be, so I figured I’d just go with Jenna to Gulfport and stay with her and her mother. We all woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning, and Katrina had been upgraded from a Category 3 hurricane to a Category 5. For two days, we stayed at a hotel in Panama City, right on the water – the waves were gigantic -and then we drove all the way to my grandparents’ place in Spring Hill, Florida, an hour north of Tampa. Somewhere along the way, we wound up in Ithaca.”

Oliver, Markham, and another 200-plus Tulane students are adjusting to their new lives on the Hill after enrolling at Cornell as “extramural students.”

Yesterday was their deadline for class registration. Most have only begun catching up on nearly three weeks of missed readings and assignments.

Tulane University President Scott Cowen has said his school must reopen for Spring Semester for it to recover.

The school’s prospects have improved markedly over the past few days, with water being pumped out of New Orleans at a better-than-expected rate.

Flooding at the Tulane campus is minimal, to the relief of students, most of whose belongings were left behind amid the hurry of evacuation.

“I had to leave two hours after moving in,” said Tulanian Travis Brannen ’08. “I didn’t have time to repack anything, so I was basically left with all the clothes I left at home, the ones I didn’t want. I’m going to need stuff for winter, that’s for sure.”

Of course, Brannen and nearly all other Tulanians at Cornell would hope that President Cowen is able to deliver on his Spring-semester pledge, if only to avoid the worst of Ithaca weather. Still, most of them have refrained from such speculation, trying to enjoy themselves while here, however long that may be.

“It’s kind of like a semester abroad,” said Oliver, “just minus the abroad.”

“Cornell’s campus is much larger than ours,” explained Markham. “And much hillier. But it’s beautiful. As for the student population, it’s really not that different from Tulane’s. Our school might be in the south, but we Southerners are definitely in the minority. I had more of a culture shock going to Tulane from Mississippi than Lindsay did coming from Long Island.”

“The social scene’s also different,” Brannen pointed out. “Tulane’s a party school. We’re in New Orleans, after all, the home of Mardi Gras. We were ranked as one of the best party schools and number one by the Princeton Review, I’m told, for hard liquor.”

Many Tulanians, like Brannen, Markham and Oliver, are staying in off-campus apartments and houses. Others are boarding at various Cornell sorority and fraternity houses, including that of Theta Chi, whose charter was revoked over the summer. Their white colonial now accomodates between 20 and 30 male Tulane students.

The housing office is placing all would-be Tulane freshmen on North Campus with all the other freshmen, filling all vacant rooms, turning singles into doubles, doubles into triples. In Jameson Hall and High Rise #5, all common rooms have been converted into oversized dorm rooms.

Jackie Rapp ’09, Jennie Rabinowitz ’09, and Kate Schmidt ’09 are sharing one of them.

“It’s huge,” said Rabinowitz. “Because it was the common room, we have Cable TV and a balcony. With the exception of one idiot who complained about us taking his common room, everybody has been extremely friendly, just coming over and introducing themselves.”

“‘Im a Tulane student’ has been a great icebreaker,” laughed Rapp.

The roommates said they and their fellow Tulanians were given $100 gift certificates to the Cornell Store. Kate used hers to buy two Cornell sweatshirts. “I’m from Southern California,” she said. “I need warm clothes!”

Schmidt, Rapp, Rabinowitz, Brannen, Oliver and Markham have all been touched by the kindness they’ve experienced from all levels of the Cornell community – students, staff, and faculty: “I remember we were waiting in the registration line at 6 a.m., totally exhausted,” said Rabinowitz, “and Dean Altschuler was coming around with cookies and Snapples, just cracking jokes with all the kids. It really set the tone for the day.”

“Considering the circumstances, the process couldn’t have run any more smoothly,” said Oliver. “And it was a good thing that it did come off that well because the stress level was just so high.”

“The people in the Housing office were just wonderful,” Markham added. “That first day when we came, we all had no idea where we were going to stay, where we were going to eat, and some of the ladies there gave us their numbers and said that if we didn’t have a place to go by 5 PM, we should call and stay with them.”

Perceptions of the ‘isolated Ivy on the Hill’ have changed accordingly.

“Our image of the cutthroat Cornell student has vanished over the past few days,” said Oliver. “They’ve been offering us notes before we could ask. The TAs have said that we should just come to them if we feel overwhelmed. And the professors have been amazing. You tell them you’re from Tulane, and everything changes.”

Academics isn’t all professors have been helping Tulane students with: “One of my professors said if I needed money, I could come to him,” said Rapp. “Another said that if we needed clothes for winter, he could help us out.”

Come January, will Cornell’s Tulanians be back in the Big Easy? They’re keeping their fingers crossed.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer