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Local colleges open classes to evacuees 42 students displaced by hurricane are enrolled at four WNY campuses

Sarah Sweeney and Jaime-Lee Capen met while watching news of Hurricane Katrina in the same dorm at Loyola University New Orleans.

Now roommates at Canisius College, Sweeney and Capen are two of 42 students from New Orleans-area colleges enrolled at Western New York campuses.

The powerful storm washed away the fall semesters at a number of colleges in the Gulf Coast, prompting tens of thousands of students to seek a new, temporary campus home.

Colleges here and across the country are responding to the unprecedented academic crisis by welcoming the student evacuees as visiting students. The schools are offering financial assistance and speeding up the normal admissions and registration processes. "You feel really displaced, and you know it's not what you wanted," said Sweeney, an 18-year-old East Amherst native. But, she added, "As unlucky as we feel, a lot of other people are far worse off."

As of Friday, Western New York's largest four-year colleges had enrolled 42 displaced students from Loyola, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University, all in New Orleans. Most of the students have ties to this area, though Canisius did enroll a number of out-of-town students from Loyola, a fellow Jesuit institution.

All told, Canisius has enrolled 25 displaced students, the University at Buffalo 11 undergraduates and three law students, Niagara University two students and St. Bonaventure University one student, school officials reported. "They have been surprisingly resilient," Jill Conlon, Canisius associate vice president for enrollment management, said of the New Orleans students.

News that the hurricane might hit the Gulf Coast came as college students there were moving in and preparing for the start of the school year.

By Aug. 26 and 27, just days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the schools began to issue evacuation orders. The students left quickly, with just a backpack or overnight bag.

Capen, who is from Duxbury, Mass., drove out on the night of Aug. 28, hours before the storm hit. Michelle M.F. Schwach, an Amherst native and UB graduate, began classes at Loyola's Law School on Aug. 22 and had moved into her apartment near the campus.

The first-year student became increasingly nervous as the storm approached and decided to fly out on Aug. 27. "I had a really bad feeling about it," Schwach said.

Back home, students soon realized their schools wouldn't reopen this fall.

"If you watch CNN, you know the city was not going to be habitable any time soon," said Nathan Caughel, an Elma native who was supposed to start his junior year at Tulane last week.

Colleges across the country offered help to the students, and the displaced students contacted the schools they wanted to attend in a frenzied, condensed version of the normal admissions and registration process. "A young woman came to our lobby Tuesday morning. I would say within a few hours, she was sitting in a class," said Patricia G. Armstrong, UB's director of admissions.

Caughel picked UB because of the reputation of its Engineering School and because it offered the chance to commute to class from home.

The three UB law students -- two from Tulane and one, Schwach, from Loyola -- are basically taking the same courses they would have taken in New Orleans, said Law School Dean R. Nils Olsen Jr.

Most of the 25 students attending Canisius came from Loyola, and wanted to attend another Jesuit school, said Conlon, the Canisius official.

The schools are showing flexibility in billing for tuition and room and board. Generally, the Gulf Coast students already paid tuition to their home institution, and the schools here say they won't double bill any student.

"As soon as school's opening, I'm going back," said Capen, whose older sister also attends Loyola. "I want to help New Orleans. I want to get back there and do community service."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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