'Class of Katrina' Graduates With Life Lessons

For many students preparing to graduate from the six universities across New Orleans, the day they moved into the dorms four years ago was also the day they moved out.

They're known as the "Class of Katrina" -- graduating college seniors who were brand-new freshmen when the hurricane plunged New Orleans into ruin four years ago. Many of these students were just starting freshman orientation in August 2005 when they were forced to pack up their belongings and flee to safety.

Tulane Student Jennifer Goltche returned to campus in January 2006 when the school re-opened. She spent the fall semester attending Columbia University in New York City, but returned to New Orleans despite her family's concerns.

The Class of Katrina
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"It's sort of incumbent upon me that I should come back and help start the city again," said Goltche, a native of Long Island, N.Y., and political science major who stands firmly by her decision to return.

As she prepares to graduate and say good-bye to her friends this weekend, Goltche says the real-life experience she has gained in the past four years is invaluable.

"I've evacuated from the worst storm our country's ever seen," she said. "There's something to be said for that. I've watched the destruction of a city and the re-building of a city."

It took months before many of the schools and universities in New Orleans could reopen following Hurricane Katrina.

Administrators returned weeks after the storm to find major damage at Dillard University, Xavier University, the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans. The storm flooded 70 percent of Tulane's campus, causing more than $650 million in damages and shut the university down for a semester, the first such occurrence since the Civil War.

Other colleges around the country took in New Orleans' students for a semester before classes finally resumed in the city in January 2006 -- in trailers at some of the flooded campuses or nearby hotels.

Four Years Later: Graduates Hit Major Milestone

For Tulane student Courtney Coffey, this weekend's graduation is bittersweet. Originally from New Orleans, Coffey chose to come back to the city even though her parents moved to Mobile, Ala.

Her mother was there in 2006, helping her move into her dorm. "I just had faith that they would take the school and rebuild it and get it on its feet as soon as possible," Coffey said.

Now, Coffey is preparing to leave New Orleans. After graduation, she will spend six months with her family in Alabama. In the spring, she'll move to Washington, D.C., to pursue a graduate degree at George Washington University. She says she's sad to leave, but believes that it's time.

"A couple [of students] decided to stay back home, but I was inspired; I definitely felt a closeness to New Orleans," she said. "This was my city. This was what made me who I was."

This year, as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, students in the "Class of Katrina" say the lessons they've learned in the past four years go far beyond their text books.

"The one lesson I've learned is you have to have faith," Xavier University graduate Takena Reese said at her commencement ceremony last weekend.

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