North Central College - Naperville, IL

First-year students experience life in New Orleans

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A group of North Central students spent a week in New Orleans this December as part of the First-Year Experience program. Over the summer, all incoming first-year students read the Dave Eggers book “Zeitoun” about a family’s struggles in the Crescent City following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. The theme of “Building an Ideal City” was explored during the seven-week FYE 100 course in the fall.

Using the case study approach, students and faculty worked together to solve a contemporary, real-world problem from a multi-disciplinary perspective. The exercise exposed new students to issues essential to a successful academic and personal college experience, such as the tenor of academic discussions, the role of evidence and logical argument, the importance of information literacy, the skills in working in a collaborative fashion and the critical role of values in making wise decisions.

The December trip to New Orleans provided an additional level of experience for 44 first-year students, who were accompanied by five upperclass FYE mentors and five faculty.

“Performing community service in New Orleans served as a follow-up to our study of that city in FYE courses,” said Amy Clarke Sievers, director of student involvement. “We used New Orleans as a case study to introduce difference disciplines of study.”

The trip was a milestone for North Central’s FYE program, which is designed to help students transition to the college experience both academically and socially. Student Gail Oesterle, a psychology major from Munster, Ind., was among the 44 FYE students who made the trip. She wrote the following about her experience:

Beautiful pristine houses with large porches lined the main streets of New Orleans. Then, the bus turned, which revealed a line of houses with mounds of debris in the backyard and boarded-up windows that looked like they hadn’t been touched since Hurricane Katrina.

After 17 hours on a bus from North Central, we were restless and ready for the ride to end. We knew we were doing service work, but we did not yet know what or for whom. However, we could see that without question New Orleans still needed help.

For a week, 44 students lived in four dorm-style rooms, one for boys and three for girls. We volunteered with the United Saints Recovery Project Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a half-hour break for lunch. We met with a professor over breakfast and at dinner to talk about our experiences.

Daryl Kiesow, founder and director of the United Saints, stood in front of the group to explain the basics. Tall and blond, he was once a successful roofer in Minnesota before doing a two-week stint in New Orleans after Katrina. Since then, he has dedicated his life to improving the lives of others through his nonprofit organization that uses the oldest black church in New Orleans as its base. Since its creation, United Saints has been giving volunteers a way to reach out to help others in New Orleans.

Every morning, each of us put our name on a white board under an assignment. At each of the different places we could pick from a number of tasks. For example, we could gut a house by tearing out drywall or clean out a church’s kitchen or paint a house’s siding.

The people we helped thanked us warmly—they couldn’t do the jobs themselves for a variety of reasons. But they tried to make us feel welcome. One woman bought lunch for the students who worked on her house. Others just thanked the workers.

We heard many peoples’ stories of what happened to them during the flood and what they did afterward. Arthur Booker, who was in a singing group called the Louisiana Purchase that opened for and toured with the Temptations for more than a decade, told stories of days on the road with one of the top performing groups in America. Then he talked of his heart attacks and caring for his mother. He explained about contractors who overcharged and underworked. He wished that people would help themselves when possible before expecting others to help them.

Then there was Mack, who had grown up in New Orleans before living in New York and accumulated antique cars to restore. He moved back to New Orleans shortly before Katrina hit, which destroyed all of the cars. However, he still bought a building to use as a garage to store and repair cars. Then, he started thinking about his time in the community center as a young man. So he used his life savings to create the Lower Ninth Ward Village in the section of New Orleans that’s still farthest from recovery.

Creating the center taught Mack an important lesson: Money isn’t everything. Money means you can buy more stuff, maybe, but it doesn’t compare to having a relationship with another human being. As the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness. For Mack, however, cooperating with others to work on a huge project did generate happiness.

Then we met Kathy Zeitoun, one of the family members featured in the book “Zeitoun,” which we read as part of our First-Year Experience course. She spoke to us about dealing with Katrina and its aftermath and what outlook she had after Katrina.

All sorts of people shared their stories, but those who talked about purpose gave us a real reason for why we came down. People talked about how Katrina changed their lives, but not once did a person say the word “ruin.” Instead, they talked about what they did and what still needed to happen to make lives better.

We came down in hopes of painting a few walls. We did more than that. We became closer to others in our service group and made connections to those outside the group. We learned that coming down five years after Katrina gave direct help and indirect hope. We learned how lucky we were and how we could pass that good fortune on to others. We learned why giving up a week of winter break was worth it.