Hurricane Katrina’s ravage of New Orleans last August left many people without homes, and many students without universities. Cornell responded to this problem by opening its doors and offering displaced New Orleans students a place for the semester.
For some of the approximately 200 students who responded to Cornell’s offer, their time here was spent waiting for Tulane to re-open. But for others, Cornell became their new home. These students exchanged warm weather and New Orleans city-life for snow in October and the smaller, more isolated environment of Ithaca.
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans around the time of Tulane’s move-in day and orientation. Astin Martin ’08 was expecting to begin at Tulane as a transfer student last fall. She journeyed for five days from California to New Orleans in order to be told the morning after her arrival that she
needed to leave.
“I got to New Orleans on a Friday and moved in while there were rumors of a hurricane, but they said we wouldn’t have to evacuate because it would probably turn” she said. “In the morning, my friend said we had to evacuate.”
On Sept. 1, Cornell announced that it would welcome any Tulane student who arrived in time to start classes on Sept. 12. Martin said she called a friend of hers at Cornell who told her that if she called the University and showed up by a certain date, she could attend for the semester. Cathy Pace, the registrar for the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, said that Cornell worked very hard to accommodate the Tulane students.
“We threw things together very quickly and greeted them with open arms,” she said. “We let them register for the courses they needed and found them housing.”
Ryan O’Hern ’08 found Cornell to be extremely welcoming and accommodating.
“I heard on the Internet Cornell was letting people in, so I called the school,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe how generous they were. They were amazing and so nice.”
Cornell helped the Tulane students register for the classes they wanted and provided them with housing. When Martin arrived, she was placed in a spare room in Delta Gamma.
“Given the situation, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” she said. “From a social standpoint, it was great. I went to mixers with the girls.”
After the fall semester, Martin decided to stay in the spring as an extramural student and apply for admission as a transfer student in the following fall.
“Most of the kids I met here who had gone to Tulane were really die-hard,” she said. “I was there for less than twenty-four hours, so it really wasn’t a big deal for me to leave.”
Although she never had the chance to attend Tulane, coming to Ithaca instead of New Orleans was still a dramatic change.
“The biggest adjustment was I had the mental idea of living in the south, in a city and going to a medium-sized school,” she said. “I had all this criteria, and Cornell was kind of the opposite.”
Martin said moving to Collegetown helped with this adjustment and suited her better.
“In the months I lived in Collegetown, it was a whole other experience,” she said. “It is more in the center of everything, so I felt more connected. I realized I could actually adjust to this school. Being in Collegetown is more like being in a city, so it appealed to that side of me.”
Martin currently lives in the transfer center and is a student in the hotel school. She said that now that she has been here for over a year and has bought winter clothes, she is fully adjusted.
“Now a year later I feel comfortable here, and I am really glad I didn’t have to change schools three times; that is a lot of change in one year,” she said. “But it did take me a full year to adjust.”
Tulane student Matthew Checki also came to Cornell as an extramural student after Hurricane Katrina. As a sophomore in 2005, Checki did not have to be in New Orleans as early as Martin and was therefore still at home when the hurricane hit.
“I made up a list of schools where I could go for the semester, and Cornell interested me,” he said. “Cornell always interested me. My grandfather went there, so legacy was definitely a factor, and there is the ice hockey, the Greek life and of course, the academics.”
Checki ran into many Tulane students he knew when he arrived at Cornell, although unlike him, not all of them made the deliberate decision to come to Ithaca for the semester.
“A lot of people went from Tulane to evacuation points to being on buses for days,” he said. “Some of the buses ended up in Ithaca, so a lot of people stayed. I saw them here, and they looked so worn out.”
Checki was provided housing in Alpha Delta Phi fraternity where he said he was welcomed with open arms.
“At no obligation, they showed me the best time ever,” he said. “I’ll never forget what they did for me. I only wish I could have stayed more.”
Checki in fact applied for admission to Cornell as a transfer student, but his application was rejected.
“I wanted to stay, but unfortunately I didn’t get in,” he said. “It was tough because I really grew attached to the place and felt comfortable. I felt I was getting positive encouragement to do well academically and socially. I took it pretty hard.”
During his stay, Checki enjoyed of the range of courses and material Cornell had to offer.
“I took advantage of something I couldn’t do at Tulane, the ILR school,” he said. “I was learning things I didn’t think you could learn as an undergrad. In the structure and material, they were like nothing they have at Tulane.”
Checki was also impressed with Cornell students’ ability to balance academics with social life.
“Kids at Cornell are more academically focused than at Tulane,” he said. “People know when is the time to party and when is the time to study. I like to think that rubbed off on me. After, I felt more obligated to do a better job.”
While many Tulane students found the Cornell students, faculty and administration to be extremely welcoming and accommodating, not all were thankful for their time here.
“I remember last year, one kid from Tulane posted a thing online bashing Cornell,” Checki said. “That really upset me. Cornell could have said they wouldn’t take anyone, and so I feel like that was wrong.”