Students shack up in hotel

By Kavita Kumar


When Alicia Houston returns to college to finish her senior year, the St. Louis resident will move into a hotel where she also will likely take most of her classes.

The Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans will become Dillard University’s temporary residence. That’s where many of Houston’s friends and professors will be, too. Some, though, have chosen not to return after Hurricane Katrina flooded classrooms on Dillard’s picturesque campus.

Houston spent the fall semester at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Like most of the 300-plus hurricane-displaced college students who took refuge at schools in and around St. Louis, she’s gearing up to return to New Orleans despite damaged campuses and cuts in programs and faculty.

Why is Houston so excited and eager to return to school in a hotel?

“You know you’re going to go back to a family,” she said.

Many displaced students are leaving with feelings of gratitude toward their host institutions in St. Louis, especially because schools such as UMSL and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville waived tuition for them. Other students, however, are departing with sore feelings toward schools such as St. Louis University , which charged them tuition.

The New Orleans-based universities did their part to persuade students to come back. Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard, and the Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola University’s president, visited St. Louis in the past few months to update students about their campuses.

At Washington University, the school accommodated about 90 displaced students, nearly all of whom came from Tulane University. Robert Wiltenburg, the dean of the university college, said, “Our expectation has always been that they would go back to Tulane.”

WU is admitting those students only if they can show a strong reason to stay, Wiltenburg said. One student, for example, got a note from a doctor saying mold allergies would make it difficult for that student to be in New Orleans. Eight students have applied to transfer, so far.

In general, Wiltenburg said, students’ parents had more pointed questions for a Tulane representative who visited St. Louis a couple of months ago.

“The parents, as you can imagine, were a little bit more like, ‘Wait a minute. What’s the status of trash collection and sewers?'” he said.

SLU took in about 170 students, most of them from Loyola, a sister Jesuit school. John Baworowsky, an SLU vice president, said those who’ve expressed an interest to stay are primarily freshmen.

Having to pay both tuitions in the same semester provided a hardship for students like Tony LaRocca, a Loyola junior who also assumed SLU was waiving tuition. He took out another loan and worked extra hours as a waiter to make rent and tuition payments.

“It was a really bad semester,” he said. “This was another thing I had to deal with that I didn’t really want to deal with. We could have gone pretty much anywhere in the country, and we went to St. Louis and ended up getting screwed.”