Lending a hand learning a lot
By Ryan C. Fleenor
(Distinguished Major, Class of 2006)
I remember the feeling in my stomach when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Trapped in Charlottesville, just a few weeks into the fall semester, I was angry at how powerless I felt to do anything about the unfolding catastrophe in a city I loved. Then Nicole Hurd, director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, and Pat Lampkin, vice president for student affairs, told me about their idea for a J-Term class to study the hurricane and travel to New Orleans to do a week of relief work. I immediately signed up.
The Katrina class was, in many ways, a fitting capstone experience to my time at U.Va. As we met in Charlottesville to study the hurricane from a wide variety of academic perspectives, I was able to engage the problem using techniques from engineering, architecture, environmental sciences, anthropology and history. Our time in New Orleans was a perfect example of the tactile, experiential learning our generation prefers.
This was not my first visit to New Orleans: I had spent a week there in March 2005 on an Alternative Spring Break trip to do home repairs and work in an after-school program. It was surreal to be there again, staying at Xavier Prep only a block from the bed and breakfast we had occupied a few months before. But this was a different city, transformed by wind and water into a shell of its former self, a veritable wasteland at the very heart of America. The house we had repaired with sheer sweat, gone; the school we worked at, closed. It was difficult to be back.
The first thing we did was take a tour of the affected areas to acquaint ourselves with the extent of the damage. It was overwhelming to drive block after block, mile after mile, seeing nothing but ravaged landscapes.
Going into a house in the Ninth Ward, damaged by 8-foot floodwaters, there was something amazingly cathartic about taking shovel and crowbar to a wall, ripping away the molding evidence of stagnant water to expose the studs, allowing them to dry and be evaluated for structural integrity.
Repeated again and again that week, the process of gutting a house never became easy or routine. Each house told different stories, every room held different secrets and artifacts from real people’s lives. To sort through such personalized wreckage was one of the most emotionally draining experiences of the trip.
At Xavier Prep we slept on the gym floor and took meals in the cafeteria with students. Transformed into the MAX School by combining forces with St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s academies, the Xavier campus was abuzz as classes started for the first time since the hurricane.
Several members of our team spent two days at the school to work with the seniors on college admission and financial aid applications. Others traveled to the campuses of St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s to begin cleaning up in hopes of one day reopening the sites.
For me, the most memorable experience was attending the unveiling of the city’s reconstruction plan at a downtown public forum. There we saw the best efforts the planners and politicians had to offer, and then we saw the near total evisceration of the plan by the hundreds of residents in attendance. The disappointment and anger welling up within the speakers was palpable as ordinary citizens stood to confront their government and demand something better. I don’t think we students fully grasped the complexity of the problem until that moment, until we were confronted with competing visions for reconstruction and saw firsthand the layers of mistrust dogging efforts to affect some workable solution to unprecedented challenges.
Since we returned to Charlottesville, I have watched my classmates, Catherine Neale and Lindsey McCook, scrap lucrative post-grad plans to move to New Orleans to continue the work, while another, Jay Ward, decided to dedicate his spring break to relief work in Pass Christian, Miss. I saw how vitally important the experience was for the two native New Orleanians on the trip, Amir Shahien and Lauren Tilton, as they struggled to come to terms with the desolation of their beloved city. No one walked away from the trip unscathed.
Ultimately an experiment in service-learning, our trip to New Orleans demonstrated the power and relevance of nontraditional learning experiences for today’s college students. We may not have changed the world, and we certainly did not solve New Orleans, problems. But we did, in our own small way, help a few individuals return their lives to some semblance of normalcy — and for that I am glad we went. We also learned a great deal more than we could have ever comprehended from the confines of a classroom.