By Peter Schworm, Boston Globe Staff | May 1, 2008
NEW ORLEANS - The mossy live oaks gracing Tulane University's lush green quads have reclaimed their pre-Katrina glory, their arched boughs now nearly brushing the ground. The city's beloved streetcars, sidelined for more than two years, are again gliding down St. Charles Avenue alongside the campus, their steel wheels rolling slowly past miles of stately Queen Anne and Victorian mansions.
Two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, vast sections remain damaged and half-deserted, and many fear the Crescent City will never be quite the same. But Tulane has not only recovered from the storm, it has rebounded to new heights that place it among the country's most sought-after schools.
Drawing strong interest from students across the country who joined recovery efforts in high school, Tulane has seen its applications double this year from 17,000 to 34,000, a remarkable increase for an established institution that Tulane officials believe may be the largest jump in the country this year. Overwhelmed by the volume, the university stopped accepting applications in January, or thousands more probably would have applied.
Tulane's newfound level of popularity sprang from an aggressive post-Katrina marketing campaign that sought to let families know that New Orleans was safe, and let students know the city needed their help. The overwhelming response from civic-minded students has elevated Tulane's national stature and selectivity, and marked a major milestone in the school's, and the city's, recovery.
The scope and speed of the turnaround, just two years after the smallest incoming class in recent memory, have stunned Tulane officials and higher education observers across the country. In many ways, the storm that caused an estimated $650 million in damage, flooded much of the campus, and forced it to close for a semester, has lifted the college to higher ground.
"We never envisioned, to be honest, there would be this positive of a change this quickly," said Tulane's president, Scott Cowen, who works in Gibson Hall, an impressive stone structure built in 1894."The message of public service really resonated with students out there."
New England, and Massachusetts in particular, are leading the resurgence. In the six New England states, applications soared from 809 to 1,963 over the past year. The number of Massachusetts students applying rose from 372 to 983, after plummeting the two years after Katrina.
And on a distinctly Southern campus where students wear shorts and flip-flops in January, where people smile and say hi to passersby, it's also easy to hear the Boston adjective "wicked" and spot Red Sox and Celtics garb.
Tulane has traditionally drawn students from across the country, especially the Northeast, but university officials say the current interest is unprecedented.
"We've drawn a huge number of kids who have been exposed to New Orleans during high school and want to help the city rebuild," Earl Retif, Tulane's vice president for enrollment management, said in an interview. "It appeals to the idealistic."
Across the quiet, elegant campus, where fliers tout volunteer opportunities in the city, students said they came to Tulane for its academic quality and location in one of the world's great cities. But many also said they came as a gesture of solidarity with a wounded city, eager to put their idealism to work on the pervasive social ills Katrina exposed.
Students volunteer at health clinics, tutor in public schools, and help fix up vacant lots, overgrown parks, and shuttered homes. Some also work restoring wetlands.
"I think the negative press New Orleans got really helped Tulane," said Sara Potash, a freshman from Brattleboro, who earlier this year helped raise money to rebuild a park as part of a business seminar. "As a student, you want to help a situation like that. You want to be part of something bigger than yourself. You want to fix it."
Applications have also risen sharply at several other New Orleans schools, including neighboring Loyola, Xavier, and the University of New Orleans.
Tulane's renaissance has drawn national attention and widespread admiration among higher education specialists and consultants, who say the university's strategy to highlight the needs of post-Katrina New Orleans has paid off. Once thought of as somewhat of a party school, Tulane has quickly emerged as a progressive bastion.
"They decided to turn the misfortune that befell the city into a call to service, and it worked astonishingly well," said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "They have become a different kind of destination."
Retif said he read countless personal essays in the fall about students' volunteer experiences in New Orleans that described "the people they met and what it meant to them." It showed him that Katrina gave Tulane a visibility and civic-minded cachet that traditional marketing could never accomplish.
"Usually you have to go out on the road to visit students, at great expense," he said. "After Katrina, they were coming to us by the thousands."
Among them is Courtney Turcotte, a Tulane-bound student from Arlington who went to New Orleans three times with a church group to help clean up and restore gutted houses. Even in the aftermath of the storm, the city and the campus brimmed with hope and resolve, she recalled.
"It was so full of life," she said. "Everyone seemed so involved, so committed."
In Katrina's wake, Tulane officials felt a sense of duty to help New Orleans rebuild, and also anticipated that they would begin attracting students who were more socially engaged. In 2006, they announced a sweeping public service center, becoming the first major research university to require public service for graduation.
Vincent Ilustre, executive director at Tulane's Center for Public Service, said more than 1,300 undergraduate students now fan out across the city at schools, hospitals, and other volunteer sites through 81 service-learning courses. A course in educational psychology takes students into grade-school classrooms; a course in neurology takes students into hospitals.
Ilustre, a 1997 Tulane graduate, said today's students are far more interested in the city beyond their neatly kept quads.
"Tulane was certainly in its own university bubble," he said. "Now they want to have a sense of belonging in their community. They are looking to give back, and to be part of something bigger."
Reed Wendorf-French, a freshman from Cohasset, began his first semester with a seminar on the city's healthcare system before and after Katrina and included volunteer stints at a health clinic. He said that students and Tulane are choosing each other.
"Students want to come here so they can get involved, and Tulane does a good job of picking them out," he said. "So it's going both ways, and I don't know a single person who isn't involved in something."
Tulane's resurgence has not come easily.
After Katrina, administrators eliminated five undergraduate and 26 graduate programs, cutting more than 150 full-time faculty positions to create a smaller, more streamlined university. They then embarked on an ambitious marketing effort.
"We felt we needed to get the word out that New Orleans isn't underwater," Retif said.
Tulane's many native New Englanders have fallen hard for New Orleans' character and culture. They down po' boys at Parasol's, stay up late to hear jazz at Tipitina's, and wake up to chicory-laced coffee and warm beignets.
At the Maple Leaf Bar on a recent evening, they quaffed local brews and sang along to the R&B classic "Don't You Just Know It," by native Huey "Piano" Smith on the jukebox as a jazz band prepared to take the stage.
New Orleans and Tulane have always gone hand-in-hand, and students and university officials are hopeful that Tulane's resurgence will soon be New Orleans'.
"We live and die together," Retif said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at Schworm@globe.com