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The worst of the storm was supposed to hit at 10 p.m. on Oct. 29. Early that morning, the waves were already crashing over dunes and ripping apart the boardwalk. Kosenski and his family knew this storm would be worse than Irene. He and his parents evacuated to his aunt’s house in Point Pleasant Boro.
“We didn’t know when we’d be able to return,” Kosenski said.
The next morning, Kosenski and his father slowly made their way back to Lavallette, walking through water that, at some points, was chest high. There was no road. Route 35 had been transformed into a beach.
They found the first floor of their house destroyed from flooding. Many of the properties his father, a contractor, had worked on were gone. The motor lodge his family owned, which once belonged to his grandparents and was the place where his parents met, no longer had a roof.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Kosenski said.
A change of plans
It likely will be months before he and his family can begin working on fixing their home, but when that happens, Kosenski knows he’ll be enlisted to help his father. And that changes his college plans.
Kosenski is a first-year student at Ocean County College (OCC). He’d considered withdrawing from his five classes after Hurricane Sandy, but his mother encouraged him to finish out the semester.
OCC had shut down for two weeks, due to loss of power. When it reopened, Kosenski missed the first week. Now, he spends about three hours a day at the library, trying to keep up with his schoolwork.
He already has a plan for the spring: He’ll take only evening and online courses, so he can help his father during the day.
Kosenski planned on transferring after this academic year to a college in California, but those plans have changed, too. He wants to stick close to home a little longer.
Despite feeling overwhelmed by the coursework, Kosenski said that his professors “have been very lenient and very understanding.”
“The college has made everyone feel very warm and welcome,” Kosenski said.
Supporting students and staff
OCC had “exceptional attendance” when it reopened, according to Donald Doran, vice president of student affairs, and, due to prior planning, faculty had plans in place to make up for missed classroom time.
The college also is helping students and staff financially. Nearly immediately, OCC set up a relief fund that raised $15,000. Those funds are going toward gas cards and money for food and school supplies to ensure that students and staff can continue at OCC. (Kosenski plans to apply for help.)
In addition, staff can apply for a one-year emergency loan to help cover expenses until they receive insurance payments.
For students who lost textbooks in the storm, the college’s bookstore was able to arrange loaner books through the publishers.
Counseling services also are available.
“Our primary mission is to help students stay in class, make up work and make it to the end of semester,” Doran said.
At the same time, OCC is working to make sure students get registered for the next semester.
The community response has been overwhelming, according to Doran. At Thanksgiving, an area chef hosted dinner for displaced faculty, staff and students.
“People are supporting one another on a daily basis,” he said.
And it’s not just communities that have rallied to help local college students. At Atlantic Cape Community College (ACCC), also in New Jersey, help came from other community colleges. Gloucester County College (New Jersey), Wayne Community College (North Carolina) and Portland Community College (Oregon) have helped raise money for students.
“The response was great and gratifying and immediate,” said Patricia Gentile, a dean at ACCC.
When raising money for its relief fund, ACCC used social networking to connect with the community. The fund now stands at $40,000. There were 425 student applicants for financial help. That meant there were 425 stories.
“If you read one or two stories, it’s sad. If you read 425, it’s overwhelming,” Gentile said.
Monica Tejeda was one of those applicants. Her basement-level apartment was completely flooded. She and her husband have been staying at a hotel paid for by FEMA since the storm.
In her haste to evacuate, Tejeda fled with just a few items. She didn’t think to bring her English textbook or her computer, which were destroyed, along with everything else in the apartment.
Tejeda lived in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, but her home survived intact. She never expected to lose everything in another hurricane.
“It was sad to see all my stuff sitting on the curb, going to the trash,” Tejeda said.
Though the money she received from ACCC’s relief fund won’t help her replace everything, “every little bit helps,” she said.
Tejeda was laid off from her job in September and began classes at ACCC, hoping for a new career. It’s been 20 years since she was in school. She’s taking two classes this semester—one online and one in the classroom. Because she lost her computer, she has to use the computer in the hotel’s business center.
Faculty has been lenient with assignments, Tejeda said, but she’s finding it “hard to focus.”
“How do you concentrate on writing a paper when you’re dealing with so much?” she asked.
Tejeda is working toward an associate degree in human services. She wants to help older people. At the hotel, she’s been acting as a liaison for some of the older guests, making sure they don’t get taken advantage of.
As Tejeda and Kosenski finish the semester, they are looking ahead at uncertain futures as recovery efforts continue.
The colleges, too, are unsure of what the future will hold. Only four students dropped out of ACCC after the hurricane, but spring registration is down. ACCC is keeping a close eye on enrollment numbers.
“We’re worried about the impact long term on students and the college,” Gentile said.
Kosenski and his family aren’t giving up, though.
“We’re sticking together and we’re pushing forward,” he said. “We know we’ll be back home one day.”
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges