All over the nation, colleges and universities have taken in students evacuated from schools in the Gulf Coast. These four college students in Birmingham take the first step toward reclaiming their lives.

September 12, marked a new beginning for Shernell White, who received an unexpected blessing: admission to Lawson State Community College, complete with paid tuition and books. After being rejected by two other colleges in the previous week, White says, “That morning when I got up, I had no intentions of registering for school.”

A student at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, White was studying to become a nurse when her world was turned upside down. Fleeing the storm, she and 12 other family members sought shelter in Birmingham, Alabama. They started off in a five-car convoy headed to Atlanta, but fatigue set in after a 12-hour traffic nightmare; their journey ended in Birmingham.

Returning to school has given White a sense of normalcy when so little is certain, “I just had to get something going that would give me peace of mind,” she says, looking around the hotel room she shares with her mother, sister and nephew.

“Something good has got to come out of this,” White says. You can choose to embrace the positive or focus on the negative, and she is determined to make the best of her situation. Lawson State, a historically Black college, accepted Shernell White and 12 other hurricane-tossed students.

Similarly, some things are settling down for Jonathan Bartholomew, Chester Pichon and 28 members of their family several weeks after they arrived in Birmingham. For the cousins, both secondary-education majors specializing in math at Southern University, it wasn’t enough just to get back into school, it had to be a historically Black college. They are two of 31 student evacuees accepted at Miles College. “They make sure we have all of our needs met,” Pichon says.

Their plan to escape the approaching storm never included stopping in Birmingham, says Bartholomew, 22. After his mother headed to Texas and found horrendous traffic, the family drove in the opposite direction. They reached Pensacola, Florida, where they found no rooms available, so they switched again gears to go north.

Now, in a city they previously had visited only for football games, they are focused on getting their lives in order. Bartholomew, an aspiring teacher, is especially interested in learning new teaching methods from Alabama professors.

Unlike many who were displaced by Katrina, Tiffany Irving has no harrowing tale of survival in her trip to Birmingham. Her family and home were safe in Prairieville, Louisiana, she considers herself lucky.

But, memories are all she has of her beloved Loyola University, which has closed for the semester. It was days before she realized severity of its situation. And when forced to find another college, she chose Birmingham because of her family’s ties to the city. Her boyfriend also recently relocated here.

Still the transition hasn’t been smooth. “This is so different—from the way people talk, to the way people dress,” says Irving, a senior whose major is forensic chemistry and criminal justice. She is one of 65 students who have been accepted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Getting adjusted will take a while, she admits, but she’s up for the challenge. “I think this situation has kind of jerked me into the next phase of my life,” says the 23-year-old, who comes from a close-knit family. “This has kind of brought me fully into my independent womanhood.”

Chianti C. Cleggett is a writer in Alabama.

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