By the time they sat down for lunch in a Howard University dining room yesterday, the four Xavier University of Louisiana students displaced by Hurricane Katrina had become friends.
Dorcas Boahema Pinto, 18, of Oxon Hill, and Ellegant Pearson, 18, of Fort Washington, both pre-med students, had known each other since high school. But Elysia Ross, 19, of Bowie, a pre-pharmacy major, and Toni Graham, 19, of Atlanta, another pre-med, had just met. Pinto and Pearson had left New Orleans for Memphis the day before the storm. Ross had driven to Houston with a friend and then had flown home. Graham had traveled for dozens of hours with a family to Houston, then to Austin, where she finally was able to get a flight out.
As each told her story, the others consoled her as only those who had gone through the same could.
"I'm just so glad to be out of there," Pinto said.
"We've got to keep in touch," Pearson said. "We need to exchange numbers."
The students had come together three hours earlier to meet with Howard President H. Patrick Swygert and Howard administrators, who invited students displaced by the hurricane to enroll at the Northwest Washington school. Late last week, Swygert announced that the nation's oldest black college would accept students who had been forced to evacuate Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- one of dozens of colleges across the nation to open its doors.
The students, many accompanied by parents, were given help completing applications and financial aid forms, treated to lunch and a tour, and presented with gifts of lapel pins and backpacks. For those who decided to enroll, the admissions process was streamlined and money concerns, compounded by tuition bills already paid in New Orleans or elsewhere, were put aside for the time being. Many of the students planned to begin classes today.
"Welcome to Howard University," Swygert told the students at the Carnegie Center. "Thank you for giving us the opportunity to help and reach out to our extended family -- that family being each and every one of you."
Several of the students looked near tears as Swygert spoke. That they had been admitted, housed and prepared for classes was the first good news they had heard since Katrina hit.
"I basically lost everything," said Robert Wilson, 20, of Rockville, a biomedical engineering major from Xavier whose rented house near the New Orleans campus was flooded after he evacuated. "By the time we knew we had to get out, there was no time. I brought my laptop, my cell phone, a change of clothes and a pair of shoes and some of my boots."
"You just have no idea what it was like trying to get out of there," said Ceresa Wilson, 19, of Laurel, who discussed the evacuation with Xavier friends Raina Polite of Upper Marlboro and Lonique Moore of Southeast Washington, both 19, during a break yesterday.
"Everything was done so wrong," Moore said. "They said we were going to have school on Monday. That's why none of the students wanted to leave. Nobody wanted to have absences on their record the second week of school."
"That's why 450 students didn't get out," said Polite, shaking her head. "Nobody had any food, any money, and every way out was closed off."
Norman Francis, president of Xavier, defended the university's attempts to evacuate students, saying that 1,300 of about 1,600 students on campus made it out before the storm hit.
Alvin Thornton, Howard University's associate vice provost, said more than 50 students have applied to Howard from schools in the storm-ravaged area.
"Howard tends to reach out because it has a tradition to help out," Thornton said.
Besides accepting the displaced students, the university also has set up a toll-free number -- 866-287-7301 -- for relatives of Howard students from the storm-affected area, has procured clothing for some students and yesterday went online with a Web site, www.hbcurelief.org, to serve as an information center for the nation's historically black colleges and universities in the aftermath of the hurricane, said university spokeswoman J.J. Pryor.
As the program wound down yesterday at Howard, students who had little to smile about in the past few days wore broad grins. Pearson and Pinto said they hoped to attend Howard but are still working out details. Pearson's church, Ebenezer AME in Fort Washington, pledged to pay tuition costs for students who are members of the church. Pinto is hoping her scholarship to Xavier will transfer to Howard.
Ronald and Michele Dowdy of Nashville, who accompanied their daughter Kamaria, 18, to Howard yesterday, said they felt assured that she would be cared for.
"Her world, as she stepped out to begin her new life, was lost," Ronald Dowdy said. "But we're lucky. We've got her, and she's got Howard."