The college fair at a University of New Hampshire gymnasium is a regular stop on Rae-Anne Mena's annual circuit through the Northeast. Her job is talking up Loyola University of New Orleans -- its Jesuit service mission, its strong core curriculum, its academic programs and sports teams. If all goes well, maybe she persuades a handful of students to apply.
But this year, as students and parents snake along the rows of tables toward Loyola's, they look surprised to see her.
"Are you underwater?" several ask. "When will you reopen?"
Some offer friendly encouragement, others crack jokes within earshot. "I hear their best major now is scuba diving," one man says to his son as they walk past.
Mena smiles patiently and stays on message: Loyola was not badly damaged; television exaggerated the violence; the school will be running when they arrive next fall. Maybe by then, Mena will get to answer some of the questions that used to seem normal, such as "What SAT score do I need?" and "Could I study abroad?"
The New Orleans colleges that were closed at least temporarily by Hurricane Katrina face monumental short-term obstacles simply to reopen their campuses, and next year's freshman class will not arrive for nearly a year. Nonetheless, recruiting is an urgent priority. New students are the lifeblood of any college, and for schools such as Loyola, Dillard and Xavier -- and even for wealthier Tulane -- the future depends on filling classroom seats and collecting tuition.
For the admissions officers working out of scattered hotels and offices, this may be their most challenging and important recruiting season ever.
"We need to be out there and show the flag," Mena said, setting up her Loyola table a few minutes before the fair began. "People walk by and you see them say, 'You're here, are you okay?' And you can start that dialogue."
The challenge is enormous.
Admissions officers first had to get their own lives in order after the storm, while at work, important records and plans were destroyed.
Against that backdrop, recruiters' salesmanship on the road must be better than ever. There may be just a few moments to persuade a potential applicant that -- the chaotic television images notwithstanding -- New Orleans will rise again as a great college town.
The colleges acknowledge that enthusiasm from new prospects has been muted so far. But they also insist students who had already expressed interest have not crossed the New Orleans schools off their lists.
They are counting on current students and alumni to help. Late last month, a half-dozen Tulane students showed up at a recruiting event in Providence, R.I., some coming from Boston, 45 minutes away.
"Tulane is the greatest place in the world," sophomore Bridget Cheney, taking classes temporarily at Providence College, told the audience. "Every single person I know is going back."
Tulane admissions officer Liz Seely, a 2004 graduate, emphasized that the school, which plans to reopen next semester, was not badly damaged. She even talked about unique service opportunities. New Orleans, she said, "is going to be an amazing place to be involved next year."
"I really believe it's going to be the same wonderful place it was a month ago again," she said.
Then she put the topic to rest, turning to Tulane's facilities, its plans to hire more faculty, its alumni network. Even during the question-and-answer session the audience ignored the storm, asking instead about academic programs, housing and sorority life. The students, at least, seemed unperturbed by the current condition of New Orleans. Their parents appeared more concerned that it is 1,500 miles from home.
"I think it might even be an interesting opportunity to be there and be part of the rebuilding process," said Kaileigh Ahlquist, a high school junior from Providence. Said her mother, Kathy: "I don't think it's going to be any worse than sending her off anywhere else."
Seely said she always expects tough questions about the recovery, but they have not come.
"I've only had a few presentations with the persistent mom saying, 'I just don't know how you can know it's going to start back up.' " Still, Seely acknowledged that attendance at the program is down a bit compared with when she came through New England last year.
With the storm, "you definitely weed out everyone who's semi-interested," she said.
Tulane and Loyola have some things going for them: endowments of hundreds of millions of dollars to act as a cushion, and relatively little damage to their campuses. But Dillard, a historically black college with just $48 million, was flooded so badly it will have to share space with Tulane next semester. At Dillard, meeting the recruiting challenge is truly imperative.
Within a week of the storm, the school's seven admissions officers were on the road. Their own plans lost, they sometimes tagged along with other historically black colleges at recruiting events. Dillard asked a network of more than 1,000 alumni and parents to help staff tables at college fairs the admissions office could not reach.
Colleagues at other schools saw Dillard's flag flying at college fairs, and it "brought tears to their eyes," said Darrin Q. Rankin, vice president of enrollment management. At a Chicago event, one person was so impressed Dillard showed up that he offered a donation.
But Rankin said he has also heard cruel comments as students walk by, and he acknowledged Dillard is struggling to get everywhere it wants to be. Alumni can help with college fairs at night, but high school visits during the day are harder. Dillard has hit only about 70 percent of the college fairs it attended last year, and shown up at only about 30 percent of the high schools.
"We're moving the class forward," Rankin said. "We may not have 700 freshmen like we normally do. But we will have a class."
At Loyola, Dean of Admissions Debbie Stieffel said she is holding her staff to the application goals they set before the storm but added she cannot say for sure what the numbers will be.
Last year, Mena got about 200 students to apply to Loyola from her New England territory. Typically at the UNH fair, about a dozen students fill out cards expressing interest. This year, Mena got about half that -- but said she was still pleased (the heavy-paper cards Loyola normally collects were lost in the flood; Mena made do with photocopies that occasionally blew off the table).
She looks for small victories in exchanges with students such as Megan Labrie, a bubbly senior at nearby Exeter High School.
"Are you guys underwater?" Labrie asked. "Some of the city's still there, right?"
Mena offered her well-rehearsed reassurances, and they proceeded to talk about Loyola's music program. Later, Labrie acknowledged her parents are not enthusiastic about her going to college in New Orleans.
"But jazz is a huge part of my life, and all I want to do is go to the city where it came from," she said. Still, she is uncertain. "New Orleans was just jazz everywhere, and that's what I wanted to experience. If it's not going to be like that anymore, I'd definitely lose some interest."