It’s the end of October, and while most University students are finishing midterms and finding housing for next year, LSA freshman Kenneth Human is still sorting through paperwork and trying to get his life back in order. Human caught the last flight out of Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina hit, arriving at the University just days after his mother’s home in New Orleans was destroyed by floods when Lake Pontchartrain breached the city’s levees.
So far, the University has dispersed more than $1 million in financial aid for this semester to more than 70 students whose families were affected by the catastrophe. The University has been “sincere and generous in its offers of assistance to students affected by the hurricane,” University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.
But some students say they are falling through administrative cracks.
“It’s very distracting,” Human said on his difficulties in receiving more financial aid from the University.
“Its hard to focus (on midterms) if you don’t know if you’re going to be able to stay at the (University),” he added.
In September, University officials promised free fall-semester tuition for newly admitted hurricane students. Financial aid administrators encouraged previously admitted students from southern Mississippi and Louisiana to apply for additional aid as well.
Yet the process has not been perfect. “This situation was unprecedented and required all sorts of exceptions to our normal processes and policies,” Peterson said.
For example, Human’s parents asked the Office of Financial Aid to review his aid package. All was running smoothly until Human received an e-mail saying he was behind on his tuition payments and would be denied University resources if he did not pay his bill.
Although he only qualified for $2,600 in aid before the hurricane hit, and his parents did not lose their jobs because of the storm, most of his family’s dispensable income is currently being used for rebuilding their homes, leaving them unable to pay his school expenses.
When he called the Office of Financial Aid about the e-mail, he said he was told to meet with OFA Assistant Director Richard Davis, who is responsible for handling all aid cases concerning Katrina victims.
But Davis was hard to reach, Human said. “I felt like I was stalking him – I left like six messages.”
A week and a half later, Human finally got a face-to-face meeting, where he showed Davis pictures of his ruined house. Human alleges that Davis told him pictures of his overturned refrigerator, toxic water-stained drywall and extensive mold damage “didn’t look that bad.”
“He was completely accusatory and unsympathetic,” Human said.
Frustrated, Human’s father called University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office. In response, an aide to Coleman left a voicemail on Human’s phone, telling him to forget about the e-mail. Even though Davis had told him he would not qualify for financial aid, the voicemail said Human should not worry about his case, which the OFA is still reviewing. Human said the aide also told his father that Davis had been reprimanded for his “insensitivity.”
In the meantime, Human is worried the threat in the e-mail will come to fruition. “I am concerned that I won’t be able to use my Mcard,” he said, although he has not had any problems yet.
Although Human said he has not heard a final decision, University officials said yesterday that Human’s case has been resolved. Peterson would not comment on the alleged discussion between the president’s office and Davis, saying the University does not discuss personnel matters. Davis could not be reached for comment despite attempts to contact him at his home and office. Typically, financial aid officials do not discuss individual students’ cases.
Yet Financial Aid Director Pamela Fowler said Davis has done a good job making sure the affected students are taken care of. “I have three letters on my desk from families who thanked Richard for his efforts,” said Fowler.
Despite the University’s efforts to help all the students affected by Katrina, officials say it’s not surprising that at least one of them would have problems getting everything in order.
“You try to take a very large organization with processes and try to fit them to unusual circumstances, (and) there are glitches along the way,” Peterson said.
Office of Financial Aid officials say they feel they are doing as much as they can, adding that their efforts have been frustrated partly by a lack of communication from affected students. Of the 300 e-mails the office sent to students in hurricane-affected areas, Peterson said, only four students replied.
Fowler said students who have financial difficulties because of the storm should contact her office.
Still, some students that were displaced by the hurricane and admitted by the University in September, such as LSA junior Walker Hines, said their semester is going “terrifically well.”
Even with the hurricane’s damage, Hines’s family is doing well financially, and he has been able to cover $3,000 in housing expenses for his room in Northwood. The University has covered his $14,000 tuition this semester, and he said he has received e-mails about opportunities for free off-campus housing next semester.
In fact, things are going so well that he has applied to take classes full-time next semester. “This school has provided so many resources for all of us here,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that and thus hope to continue my education here.”
For other affected students who are not having financial problems, the hurricane’s emotional impact has made this semester equally difficult.
Robert Brode, a second-year Law student whose family lives in Michigan but who attended the now-closed Tulane University, was planning on returning to Tulane before it closed its doors for the fall semester. He was admitted as a guest student at the University shortly after the hurricane. Although the hurricane did not financially harm his family, he says this semester has been “really hard.”
“It’s not necessarily because of school – it’s just other things going on,” he said. “The more I read about the hurricane, it’s really depressing.”
Even so, he said the University has been “really helpful, very willing to meet and discuss any problems I might be having.” In addition to counseling set up through Counseling and Psychological Services, Brode said University officials recently held a lunch with the Tulane students to discuss any issues they have encountered.
Meanwhile, Human and other affected students continue to work away on schoolwork while their families clean up the watery mess down south. “There are times when I talk to my dad and he says, ‘Kenny, you’ll have to come back to LSU’,” Human said about his family’s financial difficulties.
“Then there are times when it looks like it will be alright.”