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When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, she left a wake of incredible destruction in her path. As the mounting death toll nears 1,000, hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless. Pessimistic prognosticators estimate that it will cost $100 billion to reconstruct the devastated region. With that sobering backdrop, a lost semester of school hardly registers. Just ask Frédéric Augonnet.
"I feel very lucky," he says, just weeks after learning his freshman semester at New Orleans' Tulane University was wiped out due to damage to the campus. "My family is safe, my friends are safe," he says. "Anything I lost can be replaced."
Augonnet was just one of thousands of students - some say 100,000 - stuck in academic limbo after their schools were forced to shut down temporarily following Katrina. When the American Association of Universities appealed to member institutions to take in these displaced students, McGill was among the first to respond.
In all, McGill received some 200 inquiries via email and telephone. Of the 20 spots McGill opened for students, nine were filled, one by Augonnet.
"When I was originally looking at universities to go to after high school, McGill was one of my top picks," the 18-year-old political science undergrad says. Instead, he chose Tulane because it was so close to his home in New Orleans. After being evacuated with his family to Tupelo, Mississippi - "where Elvis was born," he is quick to point out - the day before Katrina struck, Augonnet learned about Tulane's closure. "When I heard that McGill was one of the schools making this offer, the choice was easy," he says.
For Augonnet, it's gone from hurricane to whirlwind. After contacting McGill on a Thursday night, he bought his plane ticket on Friday, arrived in Montreal on Sunday, registered at McGill on Monday and attended his first class on Tuesday. "I'm pretty tired right now," he says with a smile, "but I feel extremely fortunate."
How long Augonnet and his peers will be at McGill is still up in the air. While Tulane's president Scott Cowen maintains that the campus will be ready for the spring semester in January, New Orleans' surrounding infrastructure, especially water and power supplies, may not be operational nearly as quickly. These circumstances spurred McGill to ensure that the arrangement with Tulane students is flexible. "They are considered visiting students for one semester," explains Kim Bartlett, McGill's director of admissions. "However, we have adopted a wait-and-see-attitude for the spring semester, just in case the recovery hits a snag." McGill also waived international fees, meaning the nine will pay Quebec resident tuition fees.
While Bartlett is the first to categorize McGill's gesture as "modest, in comparison to the size of the catastrophe," she was pleasantly surprised by people's gratitude. "Even people who didn't take McGill up on its offer were so gracious in thanking us for the initiative and for the speed with which we put it on the table."
Sometimes, following a catastrophe like Katrina, the magnitude of the task at hand seems too daunting. With billions needed for rebuilding, how can one person cleaning debris from his neighbour's driveway really help? But the road to recovery will be marked by thousands of similar simple acts. Says Augonnet, "The circumstances of my being here are horrible, but people's response has been almost overwhelming." McGill's gesture, however modest, has touched the students, and helped them regain some sense of normalcy. Nine people, nine acts of caring, nine steps closer to recovery.