Standing on land that drowned under 6 feet of floodwater last August, 354 members of Dillard University's Class of 2006 returned to the Gentilly campus Saturday to receive their diplomas in the first ceremony there since Hurricane Katrina plowed through.
They had fled the campus two days before Katrina struck, and they spent the fall semester on 200 campuses around the country before returning in January to temporary headquarters in the New Orleans Hilton. In recognition of their diaspora, the graduates marched down the Rosa Freeman Keller Avenue of the Oaks with pennant-like banners bearing the names of the schools where they had found temporary academic homes. The school names and colors differed, but each had this in common: the words "Thank You."
"They were very welcoming, but I'm glad to be back. I feel great," said a beaming Victoria Johnson, whose banner showed she had landed at Harold Washington College in Chicago.
As the graduates marched toward Kearny Hall on a muggy morning to the strains of the triumphal march from "Aida," they were surrounded by hordes of camera-clicking relatives and friends. Among them was Idalene Williams, who was waiting to spot her daughter, Jenna Marie Williams.
"I'm going to cry," she said. "I'm very excited. I'm blessed that all three of my children have graduated from college, especially Jenna, considering the temporary setback from Hurricane Katrina."
The Williams family lives in Omaha, Neb., and Jenna enrolled at the University of Nebraska campus there last fall.
"She was determined to come back to Dillard," her mother said. "This is so special because of the disruption that happened, yet almost all of the seniors came back because they were focused on getting their degrees -- not just from any university, but from Dillard University."
Bill Cosby was the commencement speaker. "It's not the first time devastation ever hit, according to the Bible, according to history. Some of it is made by nature, and a great deal of it is made by human beings," Cosby said according to Reuters. "Look at this event as you sit to leave as an important, prophetic event," he said. "This is God's garden, and you are in charge of it."
Everyone who watched the events of last summer knows of the heroism of those who fled New Orleans. The students who graduated this weekend did so under enormous circumstances. We can learn much from their perseverance.
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