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Rensselaer Responds to Hurricane Katrina Disaster

Students, faculty, and staff contribute time and resources to help those affected by the devastation on the Gulf Coast
Tulane University campus

Part of the Tulane University campus is shown covered in floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005, in New Orleans. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

As this issue of Rensselaer magazine went to press, the early stages of recovery from Hurricane Katrina were under way. This was an extraordinary event that will affect the United States and its people for months, and likely years, to come. The devastation along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly many more, in an unprecedented diaspora. In fact, we would have to look back to the dislocation of a quarter-million people from the Southern Plains states during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s for a previous example of such a mass migration.

Among the dislocated were students who were just settling into the new academic year at Gulf Coast colleges and universities. To help some of these students continue their educations during this time of tremendous upheaval, Rensselaer established the Gulf Coast Visiting Scholars program. The Institute has opened its doors to 64 students from Tulane University and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, along with students from the New York state Capital Region who also have been displaced from their academic pursuits by this tragedy. We have welcomed these students, who are studying engineering, science, media arts, architecture, and other disciplines, until they can return to their own institutions. Accordingly, we are not charging these scholars for tuition, room and board, or fees for the fall semester.

Putting the Gulf Coast Scholars program into action on very short notice took an extraordinary effort by members of the Rensselaer community. Over the Labor Day holiday weekend, faculty and administrators staffed a special telephone line for inquiries around the clock and took phone calls from students who were looking for information about Rensselaer to see if it was the right “fit” for them. Once the students decided on Rensselaer, staff from the Division of Student Life, especially the offices of Residence Life and the First-Year Experience, worked hard to ensure that the new arrivals to the Troy campus would be welcomed and quickly acclimated into campus life. Students were eager to greet and help out their new classmates — some even volunteered to “triple up” in their rooms to accommodate the Gulf Coast Scholars. Overall, I was very impressed by the generosity, the kindness, and the extraordinary effort of all involved to make the program a success.

As a matter of community and global responsibility, Rensselaer has contributed $25,000 to the hurricane relief effort of the American Red Cross. Gifts of $5,000 each in the name of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also have been made to The Salvation Army and America’s Second Harvest, organizations that have direct and successful experience in disaster relief. The Student Senate, meanwhile, passed a resolution challenging the student body to raise funds for hurricane relief that would exceed the Institute’s contribution. Last semester, students raised more than $10,000 for tsunami relief, so I am confident they have the expertise and commitment to reach their goal. In addition, a blood drive to benefit victims of the hurricane was held on the Troy campus in September.

The challenges ahead for the Gulf Coast — and for the country — are many: providing housing, jobs, and schooling for hundreds of thousands of displaced people; rebuilding New Orleans — one of our great American cities — as well as communities, towns, and cities in the affected area; reconstructing and strengthening the infrastructure — including roads, bridges, levees, and communications systems; ensuring major ports and energy production facilities are up and running, the list goes on. There is much work ahead. As we go forward to address these challenges, I expect that Rensselaer students, faculty, and alumni will be among those who help to imagine, plan, and build a better future for the Gulf Coast and for the wider world.

Indeed, the Rensselaer legacy of applying science — and, today, many more disciplines — “to the common purposes of life” is more relevant, and urgent, than ever. The reconstruction ahead will need engineers, scientists, urban planners, economists, computer and communication technology workers, health-care professionals, human services workers, artists, historians, cultural experts, and, of course, visionaries who can re-imagine what has been lost, and what can be gained. We are privileged to be part of an institution that uses the power of education, discovery, and innovation to transform lives and societies. The expertise and public spiritedness of Rensselaer people offers hope to those who have suffered in this immense disaster. Let us imagine a better world for them — and make that world a reality.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute.
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