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Student’s Workshop:

Compassion Among Campuses

After three hurricanes, the Gulf Coast paralegal schools slowly mend
with help from nearby programs and beyond.

By Patrick Vuong

January/February 2006 Table of Contents


Rivers of sewage submerged miles of highway. Intense winds shattered houses and transformed debris into deadly missiles. Millions of people struggled to survive without food or power. In one of the worst storm seasons in history, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma obliterated entire communities throughout the Gulf Coast.

After the storms destroyed an untold number of lives and infrastructures, many college paralegal programs in the South and beyond have strengthened their bonds in the legal academic community by helping the recovery efforts of devastated paralegal programs and displaced students. “Every paralegal program I have been in contact with has offered any kind of help I need,” said Karn L. Weirman, director of University of New Orleans’s paralegal studies program. “[Other colleges] have provided course academic information, transfer credit information, tuition exemptions, … counseling, continual communications, and most importantly, friendship and moral support.”

Both Louisiana State University and North Harris College opened their doors to displaced paralegal students from UNO after Hurricane Katrina. “It was very gratifying to be able to help out the students who came to us,” said Charlotte G. DesHotels, LSU’s paralegal program director. “The displaced students were so grateful to be able to continue their studies, and it made us feel like we were doing worthwhile work toward getting their [lives] back to normal.”

In Florida, Miami Dade College raised funds for Hurricane Katrina victims and helped students from other schools by enrolling them in a one-stop registration process without charging late fees, said Sylvia N. Caballero, director of the college’s Law Center. But when Hurricane Wilma plowed through, the college’s 450 paralegal students were without power — let alone classes — for more than a week.

Meanwhile, other academic organizations are helping in any way they can. The American Bar Association granted extensions for reports to several schools, including UNO and New Orleans-based Tulane University. The American Association for Paralegal Education offered a refund to Tulane University’s paralegal studies director, Nancy Wagner, who was unable to attend AAfPE’s fall conference due to the hurricanes. And Thomson Learning advised Weirman on textbooks and how to set up Internet courses to supplement UNO’s onsite classes for the abbreviated fall semester.

In the Kenner area of the Big Easy, paralegal students at Herzing College applied for funds donated by other Herzing campuses, which raised money through bake sales, silent auctions and donations. “The outpouring of assistance from all over the United States and the world is a sign that we are not walking alone,” said Susan C. Gebhardt, Herzing academic dean.

Bouncing Back

Despite the flooded classrooms and lack of utilities, many campuses are determined to get their students back behind desks. In Florida — where Hurricane Wilma killed at least 10 people statewide and knocked out power to more than 2.5 million homes and businesses — some paralegal schools reopened their classrooms as soon as a week following the tempest.

“Planning has been an essential part [of the recovery] and is enabling us to open back up and begin classes for our students,” said Doris Rachles, legal studies coordinator at South Uni­versity’s West Palm Beach campus. “We learned a lot from Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, and those lessons, while tough, are helping us now. … The key consideration is for our students, many who evacuated, but are returning.” 

When Katrina flooded classrooms at Tulane, Wagner was forced to relocate to a satellite campus in Jefferson Parish. There, she coordinated an abbreviated six-week fall semester for her program’s 175 paralegal students. “When you receive e-mails from students in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Florida and points beyond, all filled with stories of upheaval and personal suffering, it’s tough to know what to say to make things better,” Wagner said. “The good news is that many [recent graduates] have already found good jobs in their new cities. I believe that speaks well of their ability to bounce back from trauma, and also says a lot about the high level of preparation and education they have received at Tulane.”

Herzing welcomed back its New Orleans students on Oct. 31, though an unknown number of its 63 paralegal students evacuated before the storm hit. “The program was down, but we were never out,” said Jean Senac, Herzing’s paralegal program chairman. “The students understand the value of graduating from an ABA-approved program now more than ever. It’s so wonderful to see the determination these students possess. They want to finish. They want to better their lives.”

Road to Recovery

Many school officials said they are optimistic about the future but admit the road to full recovery is a long one. “Normalcy, in some respects, will never return,” Herzing President Gail Sistrunk Pena said. “What was had is forever gone, but we will make this community a better place. We, as individuals and as members of an academic community, hope to provide for our students, faculty and staff a sense of purpose.”

In Florida, Hurricane Wilma devastated Dade and Broward counties, said Laura Schantz, paralegal program director at Broward Community College. In early November many of the 300 paralegal students were still without power, including gasoline, and the campus was extensively damaged. “I don’t know how long it will take to get back to normalcy,” Schantz said. “Our school was hit the hardest since all of our campuses are in Broward County.”

In Louisiana, UNO’s Weirman said the campus is doing everything in its power to get back to normal, but students and faculty still don’t have the basic necessities others take for granted. “Many lost everything they owned — their homes, cars, jobs, pets,” Weirman said. Students and faculty continue to seek funding for housing, daycare, transportation and other essential needs. Meanwhile, the school and the para­legal program need to replace computer systems, audio-visual equipment and other teaching resources.

"Don’t forget that just because Katrina and Rita are history," Weirman said, "that doesn’t mean that their effects are not still with us every day."



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