NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina gave Tulane University senior Natalie Cox a new mission in life. Pursuing a double major in English and communication, Cox had planned a career in book publishing. Now she's headed for a job teaching in the Oakland schools with the Teach for America program.
"It has changed my entire perspective on where and how I want to fit into the world," said Cox, 22. "Before, I was just a college kid walking around campus. Now, I really want to be someone who works to contribute to society in a positive way and making sure what I do affects people in a positive way."
Cox balked at sounding what she called too "corny" or "grandiose." But her words were echoed by many Tulane students who will graduate Saturday after a senior year that has caused some to alter their career paths, helped others to reinforce their future goals and made many more appreciative of the opportunity to attend one of the South's more prestigious universities.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote address at Saturday's commencement. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund has raised more than $100 million to help with the Gulf Coast relief effort, some $30 million of which has been dedicated to 33 institutions of higher education in the region, including Tulane.
The university sustained an estimated $300 million in hurricane damage and lost revenue, officials said. And the storm sent Tulane students scattering to 593 colleges and universities around the country for the fall semester.
Cynthia Cherrey, Tulane's vice president of student affairs, said 93% of full-time students returned for the spring semester and 85% of the freshmen came back. They quickly settled in to the "new normal."
Tulane students typically performed some 60,000 hours of community service a year, Cherrey said, but in the last three months they've clocked 37,000 hours of public service, including helping with the cleanup of Katrina debris and tutoring local high school students.
Cox returned from her temporary stint at the University of Virginia disturbed by the sometimes surreal television images of destruction and deprivation she had witnessed in the aftermath of the hurricane -- and determined to make a difference.
As a component of one of her courses, she teamed up with a local community outreach group called Young Artists, Young Aspirations, or YAYA, to help middle school students illustrate a book that detailed their families' experiences during the storm.
"I saw in Katrina an opportunity to get involved in the community in a way that I had never done before," Cox said.
The experience led her to Teach for America -- a national corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools that lack educational resources.
Katrina gave graduate Jeff Coates the opportunity to put what he studied for a master's degree in public health into practice. Coates had just returned from a study trip in Sri Lanka when Katrina struck, and he volunteered to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a month, primarily helping Katrina victims with their applications for government assistance.
"This is what I went to school for," said Coates, adding that the fieldwork he's done in disaster response and management reinforced his goal of doing relief and recovery work when he graduates.
When he returned to Tulane in the spring, Coates got involved in a research project established by one of the school's professors to gather data from New Orleans neighborhoods about their requirements to rebuild, in the hope of securing financial aid for these areas.
Coates concedes that life on campus post-Katrina, with a smaller faculty and student body, was a dramatic change. At least six of his close friends chose not to return to Tulane.
But for those who remained, something special occurred.
"We grew closer," Coates said. "We all have that common bond of having to evacuate."
There was also the shared frustration of dealing with glitches at a school where everything typically ran like clockwork, some students recalled.
"Things were bumpy," said Thomas Hutton, 22, a Russian language and literature and history major who spent the fall semester in Seattle.
"A lot of people were frustrated with things not functioning that well," he said. "Some computers were not working, and some professors were distracted.... At times you didn't feel that you were going to this really good university because you couldn't even get a copy made."
But these inconveniences were nothing compared with the "logistical nightmare" that Hutton said he confronted in the aftermath of Katrina as he worked with Tulane's volunteer Emergency Medical Services team.
The team navigated mounds of storm debris that blocked streets and faced communication challenges as they tried to bring supplies to a clinic in flood-ravaged Plaquemines Parish. They transported patients from shelters in Baton Rouge to hospitals in Lake Charles and Shreveport.