Campus Currents

The Hard Way to the Big Easy
Class is in session: please pick up your hammer

Bookmark and Share
Easy to print version

New Orleans, photo courtesy of Bill Ross
				 height= LOOKING UP IN NEW ORLEANS: Professor Bill Ross, center, works with UMass student Wayne Gerami, left, and UNH student Christina Stark '09

Spring break typically means escaping to the beaches of Florida or Mexico, not taking up hammer and paint brush to rebuild Katrina-ravaged homes in New Orleans. But for students in Bill Ross' "New Orleans: Place, Meaning and Context" class, an integral part of the course is journeying to the Big Easy. Part of UNH's American Studies program, the course explores the city's cultural blend of racial influences, musical contributions and still-prevalent issues of class and poverty.

"There is no place in America like New Orleans," says Ross, who is the head of the library's Special Collections. "When I first went there in the 1970s, I thought it was dirty and scary, but over the years, it grew on me." He's been back six times since.

Making the trip a class requirement allows students to see what they've been discussing while helping with the recovery efforts. "Many of these kids have never been outside New England," says Ross. "They are amazed to see the devastation--even three years after the hurricane."

This spring, 21 students and six student leaders, plus Ross, traveled in vans to New Orleans. Once there, they helped gut homes, painted and made repairs. "Being in the neighborhoods brings home the sense of loss," says Ross. "They get to know the people they're helping. They hear their stories. It becomes very real to them."

"The Lower Ninth Ward used to have neighborhoods," says Erin Powell '12 of Brookline, N.H. "Now it's just a grid of dirt roads with piles of debris, and no signs of life. One man in Musicians' Village told how he lived in his attic for four days because he was old and didn't have the strength to swim away." Trevor Williams '10 of Derry, N.H., was a leader on this, his second trip to New Orleans. "Many of these people are still reliving Katrina," he says. "One man saw his 4-year-old granddaughter swept away. He can't move past what happened."

The students were thanked and hugged by local residents. One contractor bought the group a fried chicken lunch; another time, a grateful homeowner took the students out for New Orleans sandwiches called muffulettas.

"In the beginning, it's very much my class," says Ross. "But after the trip, it's their class. They've formed strong bonds from traveling 1,500 miles together and working 40-hour days. They've moved from book learning to experiential learning. They saw issues of race and poverty up close. Most important, they know that during one week, they made a difference."

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus