Obies Still Helping in New Orleans
For many students, the prospect of trading in a comfortable college lifestyle for the unpredictable accommodations of a storm-ravaged city is a daunting one. But some socially-conscious Obies rose to the challenge this school year, putting aside academics for a semester to do humanitarian work in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“It was a big sacrifice to put my academic career on the line,” said College senior Arthur Richards, who gave up the opportunity to do an honors project in history so he could spend fall semester in Louisiana. “Now I’m averaging 1200 pages of reading a week. It’s killing me, but I have to do it.”
Although he must work especially hard to graduate this May, Richards emphasized that the extra work is part of his personal decision.“It’s inconvenient, but it doesn’t really bother me,” said Richards. “It’s part of the whole thing.”
Richards and others believe that taking time off from school is a small price to pay for making a serious difference to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They said that they believe that by working with Common Ground, a volunteer organization committed to the recovery of New Orleans, they can make their efforts felt.
In the words of Maxwell Schnuer, a sophomore who is spending this semester in New Orleans, “college is always going to be there, but work has to be done on this right now. This is something that needs to get done.”
Andrew Prober, also a sophomore currently in New Orleans, expressed the same sense of urgency and responsibility.
“I just felt really needed,” said Prober, who is a trained carpenter. “I never felt more needed in my life.”
He added, “This is not my hometown, but it’s still my country, so I feel I have a right and obligation to help.”
These students are putting a lot of time and energy into the relief efforts, but they certainly feel as though they are getting something in return for their input: all of them feel that they benefit personally and academically from the experience.
“I think I learned more there in a semester than I could in four years at Oberlin,” Richards said. “It really honed my politics. I learned about human nature. I learned firsthand about the structural problems of the country. You don’t get that kind of education here [at Oberlin].”
Prober agreed. “It’s making me more assertive. I feel like I’m getting a more real sense of what I believe in... It’s solidified my sense of ethics and justice.”
The students feel that they learned a lot, but they also must deal with the striking difference between the environment of Oberlin College and that of New Orleans and are sharply aware of the difficulties in reconciling the two worlds.
“It’s going to make it very difficult to think abstractedly in class,” Prober said. “I think its going to be difficult to go back to school.”
Richards, who returned to Oberlin after organizing, doing construction work and even setting up a community media center using flooded computers, is already experiencing Prober’s concerns.
“It’s really overwhelming coming back,” he said. “I feel very isolated and removed from Oberlin.”
This is not to say that Oberlin had nothing to do with the students’ experiences in New Orleans. In fact, Oberlin is well known among New Orleans volunteers as a key source of support.
Richards said, “Whenever you mention the word ‘Oberlin’ at Common Ground, people would say, ‘That’s where all the kids come from, all those supplies!’”
Schnuer agrees that the efforts students make right here in Oberlin are significant to the work being done in New Orleans.
“As an institution, Oberlin should have an interest in keeping a continuing relationship with Common Ground and the relief effort,” said Schnuer. “We have a responsibility to continue to support these efforts both through further hard work and financial donations.”
Even those who are unable to spend a whole semester in Louisiana can make a difference from right here in Oberlin. But for those at the front lines, the experience is certainly life changing.
Richard spoke for most of the volunteers when he said, “The sacrifice
was — hell yeah — worth it.”