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Summer in the City

December 19, 2006

Fran Simon
Michael DeMocker

Students live, work and learn lessons on New Orleans in Semester in NOLA.

In summer 2005, Cambridge University student Amy Pope of Swansea, Wales, intently watched the "telly" as the devastation following Hurricane Katrina played out before her eyes. During the airing of a BBC program, "The Lost City of New Orleans," Pope listened as Richard Campanella, a young geographer on the Tulane University faculty, spoke about his personal experiences in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the impact the storm likely would have on the future of New Orleans.

tulanianfall2006_summer4_1Pope already felt a connection to the Crescent City. Only a year earlier she had gotten as close as Tupelo, Miss., where she lived for six weeks with family friends, and the geography major wished to visit New Orleans one day to further pursue her interest in America's Southern states. Viewing the destruction, Pope feared she had lost the chance forever. But life is full of all sorts of twists and turns. It's July 2006, and the sun is high and bright over this rebuilding city.

Improbably, Pope finds herself under the New Orleans sky, serving as an intern to Campanella in the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. After conducting an Internet search, Pope learned about Semester in NOLA: An Academic Summer Experience. The six-week program is coordinated through Tulane's Center for Public Service, an extension of the former Office of Service Learning and part of the university's Renewal Plan.

Having Semester in NOLA as the first major project of the center makes sense for both the university and the city as disaster recovery continues. Semester in NOLA, an innovative program connecting the humanities to the community, combines academics with hands-on internship experiences, providing six credits to students who desire to come to New Orleans to help the rebuilding process. But the lure of six academic credits is not the incentive for the majority of the students who enroll in Semester in NOLA. It is the inimitable sense of place offered by New Orleans itself, along with the passion to make a difference at this once-in-a-lifetime juncture in history.

"Even though there was so much TV coverage of all of this last year, it's a very different thing to be here and to see it first-hand," Pope e-mails friends and family back in the U.K., after the first field trip to New Orleans neighborhoods where she is struck by the sight of "a child's cuddly toy" and broken china dishes mixed in with debris. "It really brought it home to me why we're here and how truly terrible it's been. ... I don't want to be cheesy, but today made me realize how lucky we are to have each other and our lovely house and everything. I'm so glad I'm here and hope that something I do will have an impact on the future of this city."


The inaugural Semester in NOLA provides an intensive introduction to the geography, history and culture of New Orleans, along with an exploration of the relationship between knowledge and civic engagement. Outside the classroom, the students work at least 25 hours per week at internship sites selected on the basis of their interests and skills. Once a week, students convene at an "internship-reflection seminar" led by Center for Public Service internship coordinator Erin Bleichfeld.


After seeing Richard Campanella (on bicycle) on a BBC program about Hurricane Katrina, Amy Pope traveled from her home in Wales to work with the Tulane geographer in the Semester in NOLA program.

Here, they share their experiences working with various agencies and organizations around town, including Habitat for Humanity, Katrina Aid Today, Nonprofit Central, the Office of Homeland Security's hurricane evacuation program, the Louisiana Justice Coalition, the Preservation Resource Center, Urban Build and Marmillion + Co. (a public relations firm).

"Our idea is that good, high-impact public service requires a good knowledge base," says Amy Koritz, course director who is an associate professor of English and one of four members of Tulane's faculty to team-teach the academic portion of Semester in NOLA.

Koritz's own academic interests lie in gender and performance, urban studies, and the role of the humanities in higher education and the public sphere. Since 1998 she has developed programs and courses for undergraduates that connect the humanities to the community beyond the university.

"I've always believed the most crucial problems in society aren't divisible by discipline. The knowledge we need to grapple with complex problems must come from multiple sources," Koritz says. "It's crucial to engage in education for citizenship in democracy. The students are making connections between their internships and studies, which is where the deepest learning takes place."

The cornerstone to providing that knowledge is a course entitled "Rebuilding New Orleans: Communities, Cultures and Cities," led by Koritz and her colleagues Nghana Lewis, assistant professor of English and African and African diaspora sudies; Terrence Fitzmorris, adjunct professor of history and associate dean of the School of Continuing Studies; and Campanella, associate director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a research professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

"All of the professors teaching this course have a long-standing interest in connecting academic learning to the world beyond the university," says Koritz, who has established an ongoing partnership with the Ashe Cultural Arts Center and initiated the Center for Public Service's collaboration with Nonprofit Central, a new capacity-building organization that also has hosted student interns from Semester in NOLA.

Before arriving at Tulane, Lewis launched a program called Encouraging Student Scholar-ship and Excellence Through Native-Centered Education, a teachers' professional and curriculum development initiative to guide kindergarten and elementary school teachers in producing curricula addressing the life, history and culture of Louisiana's native African-American population. Fitzmorris, a fourth-generation native of New Orleans who for decades has collected stories about Irish immigrants to the city, is a member and past board member of the Friends of St. Alphonsus (an arts and cultural center in the Irish Channel, where he was born).

He frequently lectures to local area genealogical societies as well as historical organizations such as the Friends of the Cabildo and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Campanella is an active author and respected authority in the field of cultural geography, with his third book on New Orleans, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm, published this August. Last autumn, Campanella proposed a scientific methodology to aid in the reconstruction process of the city to the Urban League Institute and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

His suggested methodology, which balanced the desire of citizens to return, historical and architectural significance, and structural and environmental safety, has been recognized publicly as the first proposed plan to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. Using Geographic Information Systems technology, Campanella and interns Pope and Rachel Ross pinpoint open parcels above sea level where New Orleanians from flooded areas might resettle for greater safety from future inundations. Then they ride bikes around the neighborhoods to verify the information gleaned from the satellite mapping.

The work will result in a matrix showing how many residents could be settled in areas at higher elevation, rating the available lands from the most available to least available and by varying population densities. "We hope to propose the maximum utilization of higher ground, presenting it in a positive light," says Campanella. "We want to quantify the number of people who could be resettled on safer, higher ground." The interns increase Campanella's productivity and they will be co-authors on the paper he will write.


When Sam Skydell, 19, first stood in front of Gibson Hall on St. Charles Avenue, he fell in love. The Long Island, N.Y., native gave up fencing scholarships at several prestigious universities to enroll at Tulane. A rising sophomore, Skydell seems destined for a business career. He is the type who is impatient with disorganization and dysfunction. On his internship with Habitat for Humanity, he doesn't lift a hammer or pound a single nail, yet he contributes significantly to the organization's goal of staying operational in New Orleans until 2008.


Sam Skydell's field work with Habitat for Humanity's Camp Hope focuses on how the organization can save money in its daily operation.

Skydell completes marketing and public relations tasks, sending letters to corporations and national church groups to recruit future volunteers, convincing the organizations of the value of a team-building experience helping New Orleans rebuild.

Going over Habitat's financial information, Skydell scrutinizes the bills for Camp Hope, the volunteer base-camp located in a gutted school in the St. Bernard Parish community of Violet.

Skydell presents evidence of inefficiencies that he believes, if corrected, might save the organization thousands of dollars every month. Skydell has done some noble work for Habitat, says Michael Hayes, his internship supervisor.

"Habitat for Humanity is a huge business," Skydell notes. "Donations are deposited into a fund, the houses are sold to individuals at cost -- around $60,000 to $70,000 -- with no-interest loans over 30 years. The payments are deposited back into the fund, which keeps the cycle going." He marvels at one deposit he makes from a particular fundraiser: "An 11-year-old in New Jersey raised $40,000 by holding a multi-school concert, and the Dave Matthews Band contributed an additional $28,000 so the donation would build a house."

Skydell says the internship experience is worth giving up a summer during which he might have worked and saved living expenses for the coming year at Tulane, a decision that was made easier by his parents, who encouraged him to stay in New Orleans for the Semester in NOLA course. In the intensive course, the faculty piles on the reading, from works by novelist George Washington Cable, Louisiana poet laureate Brenda Marie Osbey and New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, as well as literature provided by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Louisiana and papers prepared by the Urban Institute in the aftermath of Katrina.

Among topics covered are the roles of cultural practices and institutions in the city -- from Mardi Gras to the impact of religion, education, economics and politics on the state of the city before and following the storm. Each Tuesday evening the students attend a seminar on various topics featuring panelists from the New Orleans area. On one such occasion Joyce Jackson, a professor from Louisiana State University, delivers an entire lecture about Mardi Gras Indians, discussing the culture of resistance and social network of this African-American tradition.

She draws relevance from this vernacular New Orleans institution to the post-Katrina experience of displacement and outrage. "I think it's wonderful for your university to do this," Jackson remarks to the class, gathered on a hot July morning in a conference room with ceiling fans whirring overhead. "So many people just don't know. ..." She tells the students, only two or three of whom have ever heard of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, that a small girl's white outfit rescued after the flood by the Creole Wild West tribe, its feathers smeared with mud, now hangs in the Smithsonian.

The sometimes polarizing effect of Katrina is evident in the presentations. In the first Tuesday evening discussion, a member of the local Vietnamese community passionately speaks about the determination of his tight-knit community to rebuild in low-lying New Orleans East. In contrast, a later presentation by Reed Kroloff, dean of the Tulane School of Architecture, advocates a strategic rebuilding process in New Orleans based on logic and research.

"The first Tuesday evening tugged at our heartstrings, while the second seminar encouraged us to think," Campanella summarizes. "These are difficult questions we're grappling with -- colossal urban-planning questions."


Julia Eddy, 21, of Sharon, Vt., is entering her senior year as a psychology major at Bryn Mawr College. After hearing of the tragedy in New Orleans, Eddy opted to take an alternative spring break with Emergency Communities, a disaster-relief organization that operates a soup kitchen called the Made With Love Cafe and Grill in St. Bernard Parish. The mission is to feed returning residents and relief workers. Each evening, says Eddy, first- and second-generation hippies would congregate for a drum circle.


After spending her spring break working at a soup kitchen in St. Bernard Parish, Julia Eddy jumped at the chance to return to the area this summer to work with locals whose lives have been disrupted or traumatized by the storm.

"I fell in love with the place," she says. "I found a gem in the midst of devastation." After spring break was over, "My heart was telling me to stay." With Semester in NOLA, Eddy found a way to return to the City That Care Forgot, a place she regards as tragic but filled with possibilities that engage her every day.

Eddy received a grant from her college and conducted a fundraiser, selling donated clothes from a consignment shop on campus to raise funds to participate in the course.

On the first weekend's field trip guided by Richard Campanella, Eddy sees "so many things I'd never seen, even though I've driven these places so many times before. I feel like a magnifying glass is put on the city."

This is the effect that Campanella strives for. "A trained eye knows how to read the cityscape and finds it can be an adventure," observes Campanella, a Brooklyn native who has been intrigued with New Orleans since childhood because of its exceptionality from the national norm. He says he fell in love at first sight when he visited New Orleans in 1991, eventually moving to the city in 2000.

"Much of geography, like history, is perception," says Campanella. "When these students go back to their cities and walk the streets, I hope they'll see the historical, cultural depth that's there."

Eddy's internship at an organization called Katrina Aid Today involves casework with local citizens who have been displaced, traumatized and often baffled as they look for services that are scattered. She spends time updating the resource lists with information about available services that change daily. Eddy says she believes this summer's Semester in NOLA will be a life-changing experience as she gives back to a city for which she cares deeply. The course gives her this and, yes, a little lagniappe.

"I'm taking away an amazing amount of knowledge about this city and an enormous appreciation of it," Eddy says. "The reason I came here was service, benefiting the process here. This course is totally fascinating, dissecting the city as a whole -- not a particular population -- and its culture, art, geography. This is more material, more depth than I expected."

After graduation, Eddy isn't sure about her career path. At one time she saw herself as a social worker, but now is considering entering law school or the political arena. Whatever her choice, Eddy wants to continue to make a difference and effect change.

"I hope the students in the program walk away with an understanding of what makes New Orleans what it is -- its rich culture and diverse people," says Vincent Ilustre, director of the Center for Public Service. "I also want them to understand the complexity of the problems that the city faces as we move forward with our rebuilding and for them to become our ambassadors to inform others of our road to recovery."

The Semester in NOLA program has the potential to grow and become a fixture in the Tulane educational experience. Like so many things in this town these days, this summer's debut session will be reviewed, assessed, tweaked and made ready for a city rife with challenge and possibility.

Fran Simon is managing editor in Tulane's Office of University Publications.


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