Even though we turned the spotlight on the College of General Studies two weeks ago for our Staff Q & A with Kristine Billmyer, this issue we’re visiting that office again to talk with Camille Durocher. That’s because she and her CGS coworkers worked tirelessly over the Labor Day weekend to help 100 displaced college students from Tulane, Xavier and University of New Orleans enroll at Penn for the fall semester.
Many of those students had arrived in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. After learning they could continue their studies at Penn, they phoned, faxed, emailed, and, in one case, text messaged transcripts to Durocher and other CGS staff. The office then crammed months of work into a few short days, in time to welcome those students on September 7.
Despite the long hours, Durocher says it was a terrific chance to bond with coworkers. Some brought in their kids over the holiday weekend. Durocher brought her eight-month-old Newfoundland, Cocoa (pictured above).
“I’m just really proud of the work that we did,” she says, “and proud that the University was able to rise up to the challenge and utilize all its resources to do something really good.”
Q. How did you help bring students displaced by Katrina here?
A. In the beginning I think it was mostly phone calls because we handle calls not only from our own students but also the displaced Tulane students that were calling in for information to find out what they could do. We tried to reassure people that we would be doing something to help them out.
Once people were able to get the application process in order, we started to handle the paper side of it, which was quite voluminous.
Q. What was involved with that?
A. They would fax us an application. They needed to have documented scores from standardized testing, self-reported grades, proof of enrollment. We’d get a piece here, a piece there and try to put it all together.
Q. When you talked to these students, were they scared or nervous?
A. I think a lot of them were concerned about their academic careers. They were concerned about friends that were still there. They left their belongings. We had one student who wrote us a letter saying he left with three T-shirts in a duffel bag. The juniors and the seniors are probably more affected on an emotional level because they bonded to their university, they thought they belonged there, so definitely they were under more of the emotional duress. With the freshmen, it was more of a housing issue. The parents wondered how they would manage to get them here and settled in.… I think they were looking for security when they called, some kind of commitment, a sense that they were going be in a certain place this week taking classes.
Q. What was it like once you began getting all of the applications?
A. Some people put in cover sheets, some people typed, some people had illegible handwriting. I got emails, the phone rang, we had the parents on one line, the child on the other. One student was in a hotel with five other adults just outside New Orleans and he didn’t have access to a fax and the phone lines [were not working], but he had his cell phone.
We couldn’t call him, but he could text message us. We got his entire transcript—and he’s a junior—by text message and we filled it all out for him. We had another gentleman who was an ROTC person and he had no outgoing fax line and we took [his transcript] for him by hand. We put somebody on the phone with him and got him squared away. He was at the airport, trying to get on a plane to Philadelphia.
We had parents that had picked up their kids, drove all night, parked in front of our office and stumbled in here with their applications in hand. I have no idea how they managed to do it. We gave them some coffee and we made them feel better.
The rebuilding there will probably take many years, and a lot of these students said, ‘I would like to go back and do something at some point.’ The fact that we’ve given them an opportunity to continue with their studies means that they’ll be on track to go back and do the work that’s going to need to be done.
Q. Sounds like it was a challenge to keep students informed. How did you do it?
A. There was a hotline that was put on our website. We had people every two hours go in and take all the messages out and call back everyone to make sure what was going on. We were pretty meticulous about calling back and handling anything that came in that needed to be followed up … The parents had already been through the stress of knowing their kids were in an area that was hit by a natural disaster, so anything we could do to take some of the edge off—I know that it was appreciated.
Q. How did the CGS office not get overwhelmed?
A. We had a sense that it needed to be done and there was a timeline that we had to respect. It had to be done by the end of the weekend. We just had a really good time with it. You don’t realize how cool the people you work with are until you have to spend a weekend, locked in a conference room with them! We also got permission to bring our kids to the office and I brought my dog, Cocoa, my stress relaxation tool, and she drooled on everybody and that was a relaxing moment for everyone, I hope. I’d like to eventually train her to do therapy work, so it was great for her to be here because she met all kinds of people. They could all pet her and play with her and she just loved it.
Originally published on September 22, 2005