Making a difference in New Orleans

Two innovative Winter Session courses, “Literature of Disaster” and “Service Learning in New Orleans,” took on a special meaning for a group of UD students when they experienced firsthand the aftermath of a modern-day disaster.

The students in “Literature of Disaster” first studied the literature of such historical disasters as the Great London Fire of 1666 and then performed hands-on service in New Orleans, helping in the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and learning from their own experiences.

An assorted group made up of students enrolled in the classes and other volunteers made their way from the University to New Orleans in January. The group included McNair Scholars (participants in a program to help minority and first-generation college students prepare for graduate study), student teachers, graduate students, faculty, administrators and UD friends. A diverse group with diverse talents, the volunteers contributed in a variety of ways to help in the effort to rebuild the city and assist its citizens.

The project had its start when Maria Palacas, director of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, received a grant for students to travel to New Orleans on a service-learning project for part of Winter Session.

Deborah Alvarez, assistant professor of English, was conducting research in New Orleans on the literacy of adolescents after trauma and already had contacts in the city schools. She taught the Winter Session courses and organized and led the project.

The University volunteers worked with the John McDonogh Senior High School in the Recovery School District, which needed help in numerous areas, Alvarez says. There were no records or transcripts. Students were self-placed in the classroom. Some students were unable to read or write a complete sentence.

“The teachers were on their own,” Alvarez says. “There were no resources for special needs or special education students.” A group of UD student teachers first observed classes at McDonogh, learning how the teachers coped and taught.

“As we grew to know the teachers, we asked how we could help,” Alvarez says. “What they needed most was relief—other people to help out and mentor and work with students one to one. Our students worked with the high school students and also worked on tracking down transcripts and records. Whatever we were asked to do, we did it.”

The UD students also gave seminars at the high school on preparing for college, helped students with study plans for the future and assisted with establishing a school newspaper. Getting a student newspaper off the ground in a week’s time was a challenge, says McNair Scholar Shaila Parker, AS ’07, but the high school students were enthusiastic.

“It’s exciting to see the students get on with their lives and their determination to graduate,” Parker says.

Volunteers did other types of work in New Orleans, as well. Art history major Laura Armstrong, AS ’07, helped record and organize artifacts at the historical Longue Vue House and Garden.

Brandi Gilbert, CHEP ’07, whose faculty adviser for her senior thesis is Alvarez, focused on research on students and teachers and their roles in the aftermath of Katrina. She is writing her thesis on adolescent recovery after emergency and the role of teachers and hopes to continue in the field of disaster research after graduation.

Kytson McNeil, a graduate student in economics, began his duties by driving a van loaded with the volunteers’ luggage from Delaware to New Orleans. During the week, he chauffeured everyone to their assignments and then worked during the day restoring houses until it was time to pick everyone up.

As part of their coursework, the UD students kept journals, and a community meeting was held each evening for everyone to share stories and experiences. “People in a trauma zone need this time of debriefing and support,” Alvarez says.

It wasn’t all work, however. “Weekends were a time to experience the city—the music, the food, the stories, the culture,” Alvarez says.

John Courtright, director of undergraduate studies and professor of communication, accompanied the students for part of their time in New Orleans.

“The city is coming back, but the devastation is unbelievable,” he says. “I was proud of our students. Their contributions to the New Orleans recovery made a difference. For me as an educator, the highlight of the trip was seeing the growth and maturity of our students during the experience.”