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BC reaches out to New Orleans students

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BRIGHTON — Just days before classes were to begin, students planning to attend colleges in the path of Hurricane Katrina found themselves displaced—like other victims of the hurricane— and many scrambled to find schools that would accept them. A few of those students have found their way to Massachusetts, including 150 students from both Loyola and Tulane Universities in Louisiana, and have been accepted at Boston College.

Sam Sotolongo, who was entering his last semester at Loyola, left his hometown of New Orleans with his whole family before the storm hit. They spent 14 hours driving to Houston, a trip that usually takes around five. Once they were situated at a hotel south of the city, Sotolongo began searching for another Jesuit school to attend. He had already paid for the upcoming semester at Loyola, and while many other colleges allowed students to attend tuition-free, Boston College was the only school he found that was offering free housing as well. He flew to Boston with only a few belongings and stayed with a friend who lived nearby. He applied to BC’s program and was accepted.

Father William Leahy, BC’s president, had watched the hurricane footage on television and called Mayor Thomas M. Menino on Sept. 9, asking him to help expedite the process of gaining a permit for housing displaced students at St. William’s Hall, which has remained vacant since BC purchased it from the archdiocese in June of 2004.

“Father Leahy and the mayor made it happen overnight. The inspectional services people from the city permitted it overnight, and our staff, during the busiest time of their year, volunteered their time over the weekend to make it possible,” said BC spokesman Jack Dunn.

In less than a week, BC was able to furnish enough dorm rooms for 100 students, set up a computer lab and establish a study area and lounge, complete with a television, refrigerator, microwave and vending machines. All of this occurred while the school also prepared for the return of 8,800 BC students, he said.

The school then registered all 150 students, 50 of whom found their own housing, for classes.

“We tried to accommodate them within their majors, within their fields of study and within their required courses for graduation,” he said.

Unfortunately, not all has gone smoothly for the new students. While some of those 50 students are commuting from home, others live in off-campus apartments. Dunn said that two off-campus students were stabbed near their Cleveland Circle apartment on Sept. 14.

“Every report I have suggests that the Loyola students who are visiting students at BC were the victims in this case,” he said. “These assailants are known to police.”

One student was treated and released while the other remained hospitalized at press time.

Students at BC have really welcomed the newcomers, especially those from a fellow-Jesuit school, said Dunn.

“The BC kids have really taken to the Loyola kids and vice versa. I think our students are impressed by their resiliency,” he said.

BC sought to help not only the students affected but also the universities.

“We accepted the students free of charge in light of the circumstances. They had already paid their tuition at Tulane and Loyola. Their tuition dollars stayed there,” Dunn said.

The students were accepted as visiting students on a non-matriculating basis with the stipulation that they will return to their schools when they reopen. Both schools say they plan to reopen in January, said Dunn.

Sotolongo said he is glad to just have the basic necessities, like a place to live and food to eat.

His parents have returned to their home in New Orleans to assess the damage. The house had been full of sewage and the walls and floors will need to be replaced on the first floor. They have insurance, but the difficulty now is income, not housing, Sotolongo said.

His father owns a transmission shop on the other side of the city, which suffered minor wind damage but unfortunately has no customers for business.

Sotolongo, who is majoring in biology, said he had planned to attend medical school near home.

“Now, I’m not sure. It depends on where my parents live,” he said.

Many of his friends have already relocated. They traveled to Texas or Arkansas and plan to live there permanently now, especially those who lived near the first levee that broke, he said.

“There’s nothing to go back to there,” he said.

Christie Cleveland, who was a first year transfer student at Loyola, had lived in New Orleans in her own apartment for 27 days before Hurricane Katrina hit. She hopes to return as soon as the school reopens and most of her friends feel the same way, she said.

“We long for the city,” she said.

After less than a month, it already felt like home, she added.

Cleveland had attended junior college at home in Los Angeles and did a lot of research on hurricanes before deciding on Loyola.

“It’s always my luck. I know class 5 will hit if I go to school at Loyola,” she told her friends, but they all said she was being ridiculous.

When she heard about the approaching storm, she made plans to drive to Houston and stay with friends. Once there, she called seven universities, asking about taking classes, and said BC was the first school she called with a solid plan. She left her car in Texas and flew to Boston even though she had never been to the East Coast before.

“I left everything behind,” she said.

She took only some clothes, an umbrella, her computer tower, a stuffed armadillo named Oswald and the baby blanket her mother brought her home from the hospital in. She misses the comfort and familiarity of the things she left behind, she said.

“It’s really hard,” she said, adding that some of her friends are in shelters and she is lucky to have the opportunity to come to BC.

“All my professors are great. I’m really, really pleased with all the faculty,” she said.

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