As Hurricane Rita caused a second round of flooding in Louisiana on Friday, eight students from Dillard University in New Orleans had even more reason to be thankful to have a temporary home at Eastern Illinois University.
The students have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity they’ve found at EIU, where employees donated more than $5,000 for them in one afternoon and worked nights and weekends to help them settle into campus.
“Several of the students arrived in Charleston from New Orleans with not much more than the shirts on their backs,” said Brenda Major, director of admissions at EIU. “We still can’t even imagine all that they’ve gone through.”
The students, all originally from the Chicago area, had only five days of classes at Dillard before they had to return home as Hurricane Katrina approached.
Shortly after the hurricane hit, Trinity United Church of Christ, one of Chicago’s largest churches, organized a two-day forum to allow displaced students and their families to meet with representatives of Illinois universities.
Shijuana Shannon, EIU assistant director of admissions for Cook County, attended all six sessions. Of the approximately 30 displaced students who attended, eight chose EIU.
“I told them that Eastern is a friendly campus, and that one thing I could promise was that we’d work diligently to help them,” Shannon said.
That resonated with the students, including Alana Toolie, a junior from Dillard.
“Eastern was the only school that really didn’t put a big emphasis on money,” Toolie said. “They were the most sincere.”
EIU employees promised to provide support throughout the process, including working around the problem of having no academic records to reference.
As students prepared to move to campus on Sept. 9, Major e-mailed EIU employees with a plea for donations to help students buy necessities.
That afternoon, EIU employees donated more than $5,250, including one gift of $1,000 – and donations are still coming in. The university added another $3,500, and the University Bookstore allowed the students to come in and get what they needed, at no charge.
“That was tremendous,” Major said. “I've never witnessed such a show of support.”
Toolie said Major, who she called “amazing,” took students on a three-hour shopping trip to Wal-Mart until 11:30 p.m. Saturday, then took more students until around 10:30 p.m. Sunday, even though she had to leave at 5:30 a.m. the next day to travel to Bloomington.
Academic advisers, the director of financial aid, and the staff of records, registration, housing, Textbook Rental and the University Bookstore all worked over the weekend of Sept. 10 to provide assistance. A counselor from the Counseling Center was also on call all weekend.
In addition, EIU students helped with move-in trips and campus tours. Osco Drug provided gift certificates, and the Best Western Worthington Inn provided complimentary rooms for two families.
Shannon even drove Toolie from Chicago to Charleston. The day Toolie arrived at EIU was her birthday, so student body President Ryan Berger and student Vice President for Student Affairs Keila Lacy decorated her residence hall door, bought her gifts and took her out to eat.
“I had to call every 10 minutes, saying, ‘Mom, guess what they’re doing?! Mom, guess what they’re doing?!’” Toolie recalled. “It’s really, really helped out a lot.”
The students started classes at EIU on Sept. 12. Toolie, an accounting major, is taking a full load of classes. She is amazed at how her schedule was quickly created with little background information by EIU academic adviser Mary Hennig.
Toolie said she and her fellow Dillard students hope to return to their home school Jan. 4, when the school plans to reopen at a temporary location.
One of the students had actually applied earlier in the year to transfer to EIU for this semester, but then had decided to stay at Dillard. Hurricane Katrina turned him back to his original plan.
The other six students from Dillard are freshmen, who are now familiarizing themselves with a second new school in the span of less than a month.
Dillard, a private school, has about 2,000 students on its 55-acre campus, compared to Eastern’s 12,000 students on 320 acres.
But the fact that they chose EIU for their temporary home will go a long way in helping to make the transition an easier one, Shannon said.
“I think the fact that students were able to get so much individualized attention really is a reflection of the spirit of campus,” Shannon said, noting that most universities’ admissions directors wouldn’t devote as much time to students’ individual needs as Major has.
“I’m confident those kids’ emotional needs are going to be taken care of and that they’re also going to get an excellent education,” Shannon said. “I’m in love with the way Eastern takes care of its students.”
So is Toolie.
“I am happy that I picked Eastern,” Toolie said. “Everything they said was true. They’ve been taking excellent care of us. I really appreciate everybody and all that they’re doing. All of us do.”