Students Return to Louisiana's Xavier University

Thousands of students return to Xavier University in Louisiana for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. The university was forced to close its doors for the fall semester after Katrina. Regina McCutcheon, president of Xavier's student government association, talks about the first day of classes.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In New Orleans, college students went back to class today for the first time since Hurricane Katrina at Tulane, Xavier and Southern universities. These colleges have changed. Faculty positions have been slashed, academic programs eliminated and for some students housing is now in a hotel room or on a cruise ship. Xavier University is the country's only historically black and Catholic university, almost every building on campus was damaged by the flooding. About three-quarters of Xavier's student population has returned, 3,100 out of more than 4,000. We reached Regina McCutcheon at the student services office after her first day of class. She's a senior from Baton Rouge and president of Xavier's Student Government Association.

Ms. REGINA McCUTCHEON (President, Xavier University, Student Government Association): Unfortunately, it was raining so that kind of dampened the mood, but, you know, even though it was raining a lot of students were excited to see each other again. We greeted each other. Basically, we just resumed where we left off from last semester.

BLOCK: Now how had you started classes when Katrina hit?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Actually, yes, we had. I think we had been into about a week of school.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. So you're trying to sort of just pick up where you left off?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Right. So basically, this is our second week of school. People have described it as `We're returning from a very long weekend.' So...

BLOCK: Hmm. Well, that's one way of looking at it, I guess, yeah.

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: When you walked around the campus there, I'm assuming that there are lots of signs of what happened. Can you tell me what it looks like?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Actually it doesn't look exactly the same; however, the historical buildings are fine--they look fine from the outside. And we have some FEMA trailers that are on campus now.

BLOCK: Who's living in the FEMA trailers?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Some of our faculty and staff.

BLOCK: Uh-huh, not the students?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Not the students. Students are living in residence halls or near and around the university in, you know, different apartments, etc.

BLOCK: So has there been a little dislocation then of the student population, too?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Naturally it--there has been. You know, some students chose not to return. So we have most of our students--most of our students have returned. Most of those students are living on campus in our residence halls.

BLOCK: Tell me about your first moment walking into class today. Did it feel momentous in some way?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: It felt like we, you know, had overcome a major obstacle. Actually, the class that I entered was one of my old classes and there was new flooring, you know, new paint and it actually looked great. The teacher is a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament and she began class with a prayer, and that prayer motivated students to prepare themselves academically for the upcoming school year. So, you know, it felt great to be back at home and to be back learning where we're used to learning.

BLOCK: What was the prayer?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Basically, she prayed for the university. She prayed for the students' continued success. She prayed over the losses that we've all experienced. And she prayed basically just for the preservation of our university and for our students to continue to do well.

BLOCK: Regina, what did you do in the months that you couldn't go back to Xavier after Katrina hit?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: I attended Louisiana State University. I'm originally from Baton Rouge so I chose to go there and get a different university experience.

BLOCK: Was there any point over the last four and a half or so months that you thought, `Maybe Xavier just is not where I need to go back? Maybe I should be thinking about someplace else?'

Ms. McCUTCHEON: Oh, no. The thought of attending another university permanently never crossed my mind. There are a lot of students who share the same beliefs that I have, and that's why so many of our students chose to come back. The family atmosphere here, the love. You know, we had to come back and we had to have our school get back on its feet.

BLOCK: Does it seem to you that you're now part of a pretty dramatically changed institution, smaller and different from what it was?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: I mean, we're definitely a part of a changed institution; however, our perception determines our possibilities. So even though, you know, our school has undergone some changes, the outcome of those changes are going to be greater than they were before. It's something that is teaching us patience. It's teaching us how to come together and to actually bring other people in the community together. And it's teaching us also how to work together and how to continue to be optimistic through negative situations.

BLOCK: Regina, what are your plans after you graduate?

Ms. McCUTCHEON: I will be attending Tulane Medical School. I'm going to be starting, I believe, on August 4th. So I'll be leaving Xavier, going straight to Tulane.

BLOCK: Well, best of luck to you and welcome back to class.

Ms. McCUTCHEON: OK, thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Regina McCutcheon, a senior at Xavier University in New Orleans, talking with us on the first day that classes resumed after Hurricane Katrina.

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