Displaced Katrina student’s wild ride not yet over

Daily Sundial

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Shelyn Mouton, a freshman pre-med major from Xavier University in Louisiana, had only spent 10 days at her school when she had to evacuate her dorm to clear the path for Hurricane Katrina, which eventually tore her campus apart.

“I lost everything,” Mouton said, including clothing, shoes, and a new computer. With a $360 American Red Cross card, she arrived at CSUN Sept. 19, ready to start classes.

She chose CSUN because the campus replied to her promptly, because she would be relatively close to her mother and her aunt in Berkeley, and because an old friend is enrolled here.

After two weeks of communication with the campus, Mouton thought she would be ready to start class immediately.

Deidra Garman, Mouton’s aunt, said she did not understand why everything was not ready for Mouton when she first arrived at CSUN. By 2 p.m. on Sept. 19, all three women were hungry, and appeared tired and drained. Mouton said she spent more eight hours trying to get a few classes at CSUN.

“When you ask people here where something is, nobody knows anything,” Garman said.

Garman said she was expecting some sort of host from CSUN to receive Mouton when she arrived to walk them through the process of getting enrolled and settled into classes.

“They have been calling us for two weeks,” Garman said. “She should have been able to go to class.”

The CSU system announced on Sept. 8 that it would enroll student victims of Hurricane Katrina, and that the system would help them with financial assistance and housing.

Eric Forbes, director of Admissions and Records, confirmed that out of more than 60 admitted students, 17 were enrolled as of Sept. 23. Students from schools other than Xavier University have also enrolled, including some from the University of New Orleans and Southern University in Baton Rouge.

“Our role is to engage them on the functional side, and to obtain their documentation, admit them and enroll them,” Forbes said.

Robin Ferguson, administrative assistant to Terry Piper, Vice President for Student Affairs, said the campus is doing everything it can to accommodate the students from the affected areas.

“What we’re doing is accepting them, conditionally admitting them, and getting them services,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson also said it was her job to find the right people in each field of service to assist the needs of each student.

An e-mail from Provost Harold Hellenbrand notified all campus faculty and staff about the arrival of the Gulf Coast students, asking that everyone should do what they can for the students.

Frankie Augustin, director of College of Science and Mathematics Student Services Center/ EOP, said she was not told much, but she and her staff have done what they can.

“We received a list of invited students from the provost and began to call these students to try and figure out in which college they belonged,” Augustin said. Four of the 17 students will be enrolled in the College of Science and Mathematics.

Angelica Mata, retention counselor for the college’s Student Services Center/EOP, is responsible for contacting professors and departments to get the Katrina-affected students situated in classes in the college, contacting Financial Aid, if needed, and getting them placed in affordable housing.

Augustin and Mata said some campus faculty and staff were skeptical of their intentions with accommodating Katrina-affected students, even questioning whether the students they were trying to get classes for were really victims of the hurricane.

“I am a professional and I work here. Why would you question me?” she said. “I would call a department and they would pass me down to a secretary who would tell me I had to go myself and talk to the professor,” Mata said. “It was as if it bothered some people.”

Augustin did mention that some departments, like Chicano/a Studies and Pan-African Studies, as well as other individuals contacted her last weekend to see how they could help out.

“It wasn’t all negative. There are some good people in the campus who bent over backwards,” Augustin said.

An e-mail from the CSU stated “campuses providing access to Katrina students will either provide on-campus housing or assist the student in securing housing off-campus.”

Debbie Quinlan Kolstad, manager of business services in Student Housing and Conference Services, said that although the department still has a waiting list of 80 men and 110 women for general student housing, there was a special list provided by Student Affairs for off-campus housing for the Katrina-affected students.

“We just let them use our computers, printers, and phones,” Kolstad said.

Kolstad also said the office helped about 10 students during the process, but it was not Student Housing’s job to ensure that the students found a home.

Mata from Science and Mathematics said she has helped the students find homes, but found some people were less than compassionate to the students’ situation.

“One lady wanted a credit check, a letter from FEMA, and $250,” Mata said. “Where were these kids going to get that?”

Mouton is now staying with Joy Smith, an active member of the CSUN Alumni Association who was born and raised in New Orleans. Smith gave Mouton a room in her home, which is close to campus, free of charge.

“To watch my beloved city underwater, I felt like I needed to do something,” Smith said.

Smith greeted Mouton and her family with a welcome home dinner. She said she made them iced tea because it’s the “New Orleans thing” to do.

Mouton paid her $21,000 yearly tuition at Xavier University before evacuating the campus, and after receiving $17,000 in financial aid; her family paid $4,000 out of pocket. The tuition included housing expenses and two free meals a day.

CSU decided to waive out of state tuition fees, but in-state fees are still due from students unless they had already applied for financial aid. For those students who cannot transfer their aid or did not previously apply for it, tuition is still around $1,500.

“They said everything was free, and taken care of,” Garman said, as she left the CSUN Financial Aid office.

Clara Potes-Fellow, CSU spokesperson, said the decision to waive any further fees is up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

“At this point, the CSU admitted more than 400 students from the three states affected, and we have offered more than $12,000 in fee waivers, housing, and food,” Potes-Fellow said.

Private universities around the country, such as Gettysburg College and Howard University, have waived their fall tuition fees completely for displaced students. Middlebury College assigned a student host for each Katrina victim, and their students doubled up in dorms to make room for them.

“No public university can do that,” Potes-Fellow said. “Our offer has been very generous.”

Mouton started hanging out with her longtime friend who lives in the area by the end of the day she arrived.

“I make friends fast,” Mouton said.

Smith said she regretted that Mouton had a tough time on her first day, but said they were going to “have a blast.”

Connie Llanos can be reached at connie.llanos.600@csun.edu.