I'm going to start my New Orleans series with the event for which we were there: the reopening of Tulane University. Readers of Midlife Matters know that my daughter, like most other freshmen, was there only a few hours last August before the Katrina evacuation, which was expected to last four days. In the four months that passed before they could return, Tulane students attended nearly 600 other colleges and universities, in many, if not most, cases with tution waivers that enabled badly needed dollars to stay at Tulane.
The campus itself, on higher ground than much of New Orleans, was badly damaged but not devastated. Four months later, much restoration works remains ahead, but the buildings are functioning and it is possible to imagine the beauty that must have marked the quadrangles of live oaks, magnolias, and green grass. Far more devastating has been the loss of several programs, cut in the wake of the Katrina-driven budgetary crisis. And worse than that, the loss of many faculty and staff homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods.
Nevertheless, they came back -- over 85% of the freshmen who had had to begin their college careers elsewhere -- to a rousing convocation last Thursday. The auditorium was packed as a jazz band marched and danced down the center aisle, followed by the banners symbolizing each of the Tulane University colleges, the key members of the administration and, finally and to a spontaneous and rousing standing ovation, University President Scott Cowen. The last time that Dr. Cowen appeared on the convication stage, he was wearing Bermuda shorts and urging students and parents to hightail it out of town. This time, bedecked in his full academic regalia and wiping tears from his eyes, he presided over the rebirth of a university that he must have more than once suspected might never come to pass.
You can read the Tulane version of the event and see more photos here. From a personal standpoint, I will add that this was my first trip to New Orleans and I went, not because I thought my daughter needed two parents for her third attempt at beginning college, but because I wanted to be a witness to history. And I was never disappointed. Scott Cowen has made some hard, hard decisions in the past months, some of which have engendered further confusion, loss, and heartbreak for students, families, and faculty in departments that have been eliminated. But there is no question in my mind that Tulane University would no longer be in existence had it not been for his vision and determination, and the tireless effort he has made ever since he pulled his staff together by text-messaging when cell phones failed and paddled his canoe out of the building where he weathered the storm. It must have been quite a moment for him to stand on that podium and look at the freshmen families whose return he and his extraordinary administration, faculty, staff and grounds crews had engineered.
The rest of orientation was -- well, like and unlike freshmen orientations. Freshmen families were feted on a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi, a trip I had never expected to take, and at a party at the Audubon Zoo, one of the first NOLA instituitons to reopen after the hurricane. We got lost and frustrated on our attempts to pick up hangers, a surge protector, and toothpaste, and managed to miss all the information events scheduled for parents. The lovely daughter has had her challenges: she lost her wallet in a movie theatre the night before orientation, creating a series of headaches that will take months to repair, inasmuch as she is now 1000 miles from our own Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and she is deeply missing her first semester friends and feeling a bit isolated in her sadness. Most of the freshmen went to hometown schools, had less than desirable experiences, and are thrilled without reservation to be back at Tulane, but she went to her second-choice college, one that she would have happily attended in the first place, had a wonderful semester there, and has very mixed feelings about this new transition. Thankfully she is a resilient, observant, and thoughtful young woman, willing to put herself on the line and fully capable of making her own decisions (woe to the person who tries to intervene!), so I am sure she will figure out the right path for herself.
We did make it onto a city tour bus, and I did make my own journeys south of and around a bit of New Orleans, so there is more to come in the next few days on history, architecture, and the everpresent and overwhelming wake of Katrina.