Class Act: New York Colleges Welcome Big Easy’s Refugees

David Lindsley is a 20-year-old sophomore and New Orleans native who has landed, practically overnight, at New York University.

On Friday evening, Mr. Lindsley was sitting in an auditorium at N.Y.U., attending a special orientation session for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He was there with his girlfriend, Lilly Pax, 21, a junior. Together, they had fled their alma mater, Tulane University, the Saturday before the storm hit, and arrived in Lafayette, La., with a caravan of a dozen classmates. The pair eventually straggled north to seek refuge in Syosset, Long Island, at the home of Ms. Pax’s parents.

“I decided to come up here and see if I could get into a school,” Mr. Lindsley said nonchalantly, noting that his own parents’ house is now underwater. “On the way, I was like, ‘Let’s talk to N.Y.U. and see.’”

Over the course of an hour and a half, college administrators greeted the goateed Mr. Lindsley and several dozen of his fellows with offers of hugs and red beans and rice (as needed) and a somber rendition of the N.Y.U. theme song. They warned of the big city’s dangers and pledged a network of support. When the speeches ended, anxious parents swarmed around the college officials to ask questions. Their progeny flirted and drank coffee.

New Orleans’ student population—comprised of thousands of kids at Tulane University, Loyola University, the University of New Orleans and other local schools—is on the march. No one knows exactly how many students were displaced by the devastation in Louisiana, but more than 400 representatives of the diaspora have found academic refuge in New York City.

As of noon on Monday, New York University had enrolled 107 visiting students at its Washington Square campus. Another seven displaced students had taken advantage of the school’s study-abroad programs, with six shipping off to London and one to Madrid. N.Y.U. officials will continue to review candidates through the end of this week, said spokesman Josh Taylor. The admissions process, he added, was based mostly on whether N.Y.U. had courses available to meet students’ particular needs, using a streamlined application form he called “very bare-bones.”

“We couldn’t ask to see transcripts, because virtually no one had transcripts,” Mr. Taylor explained.

At Columbia University, 183 displaced students have enrolled and admissions are now closed. In lieu of college transcripts, administrators looked to high-school records and SAT’s. “We admitted almost everyone,” said George Calderaro, the director of communications at the School of Continuing Education, which handled most of the influx. “The most important thing was getting these kids enrolled and in classes.”

Other institutions across the city have also welcomed Katrina students. At the start of the week, Fordham University had enrolled 104 students , the City University of New York had adopted 40, the New School seven, Marymount Manhattan College four and Cooper Union two.

At Manhattan College in the Bronx, the doors are open wide but, considering the institution’s early start—classes began before Labor Day—and the wide range of offers from other local schools, no Katrina students have registered there.

The generosity of New York’s schools—most are waiting to levy tuition and fees until students’ home institutions work out their finances, and don’t stand to profit from the influx—has been noted as exemplary.

“I think that the people of New York City and the public and private institutions in New York are extremely sympathetic to what the people in New Orleans are going through, because of what Manhattan went through four years ago,” reflected Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, who has helped coordinate a national academic response to the nightmare in New Orleans. “Everything we are hearing from the campuses in New York suggests that they are bending over backwards to help students.”

Back Home Again

But not all of New York’s collegiate resources can be stretched. The city’s crammed dormitories have few bunks to spare so, by and large, the visitors must arrange their own housing. As a result, most of the temporary students here are returnees, rediscovering their roots in the tristate area, or—to put it less delicately—moving back in with parents. For kids who were anticipating a taste of freedom, coming home can be a bit of a buzz kill.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” mused Ian Thomas, a 19-year-old Tulane junior who left all of his belongings, including a treasured Nintendo GameCube, back at his rented house in New Orleans, where water now laps at the front porch. “In some senses, it’s great: I love my family, and I miss them when I’m at school,” he added. But now that he’s temporarily enrolled at Columbia University—where he says the hospitality has been outstanding—Mr. Roberts is also back under the watchful eyes of his parents at the family’s home in Clinton Hill.

“For two years, I haven’t had anyone over my shoulder saying, ‘Why haven’t you done your reading yet? Don’t you have a paper to start?’” he said. “It’s caused some arguments.”

And parents aren’t the only factor that set the Big Easy and the Big Apple apart.

Mr. Thomas added that, unlike the watering holes of New York City, the New Orleans bar scene welcomes precocious patrons: Starting at age 18, they are allowed inside bars to socialize, even though they can’t legally drink.

“In my opinion, Columbia’s social scene is a little lacking,” he said.

Other students suggested that, compared with New Yorkers, the people of New Orleans are simply “nicer.”

“Today, I bumped into somebody. I was like, ‘I’m sorry,’ and all she did was give me a mean stare for 10 seconds,” recalled Mr. Lindsley. “I was like, ‘O.K., I’m going to keep walking now. I didn’t do it on purpose!’”

Students reminisced about jazz and jambalaya. For those who’d grown up in the New York area, New Orleans’ culture had felt particularly seductive.

“My mom likes to say that New Orleans is like the feminine version of New York. It’s got the same loud energy, but it’s softer,” said Ms. Pax. “I never thought that I’d come back to live in New York again. I was staying there.”

Some may hope to stay here.

David Soto-Karin, a Tulane sophomore and native of Willamette, Ill., said he’d fallen in love with filmmaking in college but had to patch together an interdisciplinary major to learn the craft. Now he’ll be spending his fall semester at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School, one of the most competitive film schools in the country.

“Here I can have the opportunity to get right to the heart of it for a semester, work with good equipment, great professors,” he marveled. “I applied to N.Y.U. out of high school and, last time, I didn’t get in.”

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at N.Y.U.’s Wagner School, is also trying to lure kids back to work. He’s volunteering his time to teach a special class for 15 of the displaced students. The topic? New York City politics.

“It’s not the kind of course they might have taken in New Orleans,” he explained. “This is a kind of opportunity for them, because there’s no better season to study politics in New York then a Mayoral election season.”

Locally, the Democrats would probably agree.

“Let me put it this way,” he added with a chuckle. “If you’re going to be in New Orleans, you ought to learn how to eat well, and if you’re going to be in New York, you ought to learn about politics.” Class Act: New York Colleges Welcome Big Easy’s Refugees