'College Transition' Taking On New Meaning For Displaced Students

73,000 students directly affected by disaster face depression, other difficulties.

Loyola University student Marie Guevara was in the middle of setting up her new apartment in New Orleans when she heard about the mandatory evacuation. So the 18-year-old communications major left all her belongings behind, save a week's worth of clothes, and fled back to her hometown in Texas to await the Big Easy's fate.

Massive devastation to the Gulf Coast has forced 15 local colleges and universities, including Loyola, to shut down their campuses for the fall semester, displacing more than 73,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education (see "Gulf Coast Colleges, Students Grapple With Disaster"). So far, 25 states have opened their doors to the students (see "Several Colleges Offering To Take In Students Displaced By Katrina").

"To some degree, it's like grief counseling to deal with the shock, the anger, and the denial we all experience when we suffer a significant loss," said Cathey Soutter, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The challenge then is, 'How do I make peace with where I am now?' "

Guevara has enrolled as a visiting student at SMU, which has taken in roughly 200 displaced students since Katrina and the ensuing floods ravaged the Coast (see "New Orleans Evacuates As Mayor Issues 'Desperate SOS' ").

The transition has been a difficult one for the undergrad, who now has to share a room with her little sister.

"It's really hard to come to the realization that you don't have this apartment of your own anymore and you won't be going away to college for another year," she said. "Instead you're coming back home and really taking a step backwards."

Like Guevara, many of the displaced students have to enroll in colleges they hadn't planned to attend.

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"In the beginning, everyone thought we would go back in a few days," she explained, "so just being thrown into this other world has been very difficult, because your university becomes your little community and when you lose that and you're thrown into a different one, it's really hard to readjust."

When something sudden like this happens ... it leaves students feeling cheated and robbed," said Robert deMayo, Ph.D., associate dean of psychology at Pepperdine University. "Even if they can make up some of those experiences at other institutions, there's that sense of loss for that college experience they had always anticipated they would have."

Since the displaced students don't know how long they'll be transitioning, deMayo says they need to take it slow, or else they could run into trouble.

"Students need to be cautious about being in a rush to move on with their life, because sometimes they might not be ready to do so," he explained. "One of the things that happens in trauma is that people tend to cut themselves off from their emotions in order to get through the crisis. You don't want to be overwhelmed by these feelings, so you cut them off, and unfortunately that can set people up for post-traumatic stress."

Soutter also suggested that students actively seek support from their peers.

"Some of us resist change, and others of us welcome it and do really well, but I think the sooner students get plugged in to their new surroundings, the sooner they can begin to reinvest their energy into a place they feel safe in," she said.

DeMayo seconded that notion, saying students need a sense of community and peer support to combat feelings of isolation and loss. They have undergone multiple stressors, he said, including the disaster itself, the sudden evacuation, possible loss of loved ones and being forced to live in horrible conditions (see "Officials Worried About Disease As Thousands Refuse To Evacuate New Orleans").

Guevara says she has experienced some depression in recent weeks. "The saddest thing for me was realizing not only can you not go back to your school, but that the city itself might never be the same," she said.

Fortunately, Guevara has been able to maintain contact with her old Loyola friends, many of whom have relocated to the University of Houston. Her roommate, an international student from Ecuador, is now enrolled at Fordham University in New York.

SMU has waived tuition ($26,880 a year) for displaced students for the fall semester and says their transcripts will reflect the students having taken the fall courses at their previous institutions. Professors are also helping out; some have offered housing for the displaced students, while others are paying for their textbooks, according to Meredith Davidson, SMU's director of national media marketing.

Guevara says she has been taken aback by the outpouring of support at SMU.

"At our orientation, the staff just kept saying they were so glad to have us there and that this could be the university's way of helping New Orleans," she said. "It wasn't like, 'OK, we're doing you all a favor by taking you in.' Instead it was more like, 'Thank you for giving us this opportunity to help.' "

To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.