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Students chased by Katrina stay

| Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Two weeks after Laurie Podskalny bought bedsheets at a New Orleans Target for her Tulane University dorm room, she was enrolled in classes 16 hours north at Carnegie Mellon University.

Podskalny became a student refugee, hours after her freshman convocation and just before Hurricane Katrina hit one year ago Tuesday.

Podskalny, now 19, said she remembers Tulane President Scott Cohen, wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt, welcoming students with the announcement, "We're so happy you're here. ... Now please go."

She took shelter at a Houston hotel with her mom, then flew home to Silver Spring, Md., where she immediately began calling schools.

"Carnegie Mellon was the nicest school," she said. The university extended her an invitation right away.

As many as 100,000 college students like Podskalny were displaced when Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and closed schools, according to the American Council on Education, based in Washington.

New Orleans, like Pittsburgh, is a college-rich city, with Tulane, the University of New Orleans, Loyola University New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana educating thousands of students a year.

As many as 404 households use a Pittsburgh-area address today because they were displaced by Katrina, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency's record of Katrina disaster relief applicants.

At least seven students stayed in Pittsburgh to continue their education, deciding not to return to the post-Katrina South.

The University of Pittsburgh said it retained one law student from Tulane.

Of the 31 students who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon last fall, six Tulane students stayed and began classes Monday, spokeswoman Jennifer King said.

Justin Feig, 23, a Carnegie Mellon senior, said he loved Tulane and New Orleans when he lived there, but he's better off in Pittsburgh in respect to his education. Tulane is phasing out four engineering majors, including his mechanical engineering major.

As soon as Feig arrived on campus last fall, "I knew I wanted to stay here," he said.

Feig, a Boca Raton, Fla., native, said he applied to transfer officially for the spring semester, but didn't know he was accepted because of a delay in mail after the hurricane. He had returned to New Orleans when a Carnegie Mellon dean called him in January.

"What are you doing in New Orleans?" he said the dean asked him. "Classes started today." Feig came back to complete his degree.

Podskalny said the transition was rough, though. She burst out laughing when she was given a test in a chemistry class on her second day at Carnegie Mellon. "I hadn't had chemistry in 2 1/2 years," she said. She failed.

To her surprise, though, she loved the school, and now laughs about previous thoughts of being a "party girl" in New Orleans.

At Carnegie Mellon, she likes that students are as likely to fill the library on a Friday night as they are a bar.

Podskalny did go back to Tulane last spring to give it a shot. But she thought of one thing while there: "I must go rejoin my people -- the nerds," Podskalny said with a laugh.

Additional Information:

Katrina Anniversary

Special Report: Katrina

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