UTA Magazine
The right thing to do
More than 200 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina found a temporary home at UT Arlington

All they needed was a couple of changes of clothes. A hurricane sends New Orleans residents packing most years. Surely Katrina would be no different. They’d find a place to stay for a few days, then head back to college. Cousins Diane Dinh, Trinh Nguyen and more than a dozen family members gathered a few belongings, hopped in their cars and drove to Arlington to stay with relatives.

Diane Dinh and Trinh Nguyen
Cousins Diane Dinh, left, and Trinh Nguyen spent the fall semester living with the Leidlein family, from left, Erin, Eric, Christin, Shannon, Matthew and Carol. The students were like family, Carol said.

The next day, the sixth-strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin made landfall near their hometown of New Orleans East.

“We never thought it would happen like this,” said Nguyen, a nursing freshman from the University of New Orleans. “Every other time we evacuated, it was like two or three days and we’d go back home. This time it was different.”

More than different. Life-changing.

Winds of 125 mph ripped through the houses where they lived with their parents and siblings. Dinh, a pre-med biology sophomore from Xavier University, doubts their home can be repaired. The roof is gone, the ceiling collapsed.

Evacuee Van Le’s house also suffered severe wind damage. The first day she was allowed back in the city, the UNO biology major went home to secure important papers.

“It looked like somebody shook the city and everything fell,” said Le, who took eight hours at UT Arlington last fall. “There were trees and fences everywhere. I was shocked. I didn’t recognize anything.”

While Le lived alone in Centennial Court Apartments during her semester here, Dinh and Nguyen were taken in by the Leidlein family: Eric, wife Carol and children Erin, 17, Shannon, 15, Christin, 13, and Matthew, 9. Think Brady Bunch with less living space and no Alice to cook and clean.

As UT Arlington’s assistant director of management services and housing, Eric matched displaced students with the 50 or so families who volunteered their homes. While sharing the list, he met Dinh.

“When something like this happens, you think, ‘What would it be like if my daughter was in that kind of a situation?’ ” said Leidlein, whose oldest child, Bethany, attends Southwestern University. “We talked about inviting a student to stay with us. We decided it was the right thing to do.”

One student became two when Dinh asked if there was room for her cousin. They shared one of the Leidleins’ three bedrooms near the southern edge of campus. No rent, the family insisted.

“The more, the merrier. We like having a lot of people around,” Carol said as the eight gathered in the living room one November afternoon. “There’s a little more competition for the hot water, but it doesn’t feel crowded at all. Diane and Trinh are like family.”

The “family” went ice skating and to the movies. Dinh taught Erin to play the piano. Erin and Shannon taught Nguyen gymnastics moves. The Leidleins tried Vietnamese food, and the cousins got their first taste of Tex-Mex.

“We introduced them to burritos,” Shannon said.

But food wasn’t what attracted Dinh, Nguyen, Le and more than 200 other displaced students to UT Arlington. They wanted to continue their schooling without skipping a semester while their home universities struggled with how and when to reopen.

Nothing about the admissions process was routine, said Dale Wasson, associate vice president for student enrollment services. The University let the students enroll late, charged them in-state tuition, allowed advances on book loans and waived deadlines, transcript requirements, application fees and course prerequisites.

“We set up bullpen advising in the Architecture Building for three days. We fed them. It goes on and on,” Dr. Wasson said. “But it was the right thing to do.”

That phrase again.

The special treatment particularly helped graduate student Chalet Brown, who is pursuing a master’s degree in health promotion and education at UNO. Though her degree isn’t offered at UT Arlington, she took an independent study course through the Kinesiology Department to stay on track to graduate in May.

Dinh, who completed two courses, likened her experience to studying abroad.

“I always wanted to study in a different place. This is kind of like that,” she said. “It’s been great to study at another university.”

Biology Lecturer Tim Henry taught five “guest students” in his anatomy and physiology class. Because they arrived late, he allowed them to replace their first exam grade with their final exam grade, if it was higher.

“Most were eager to catch up and learn,” he said.

Le was one. With Dr. Henry’s class and a physics course now behind her, she is two steps closer to graduating and applying to medical school. But it wasn’t easy. She came here with two friends. One returned to New Orleans. The other couldn’t focus, so she dropped out of school and got a job. Uncertainty took its toll.

“It’s hard when you don’t know where you’re going to go or what you’re going to do next. It was depressing at times because you couldn’t go back to your old life and see your family and friends,” Le said. “But my professors were very helpful.”

The University’s outreach went beyond the classroom. A performance co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Classical Ballet raised $20,000 to aid evacuees in the area. Music faculty presented a benefit concert, and the School of Social Work organized a blood drive and provided counseling and clinical services.

Students in residence halls and campus apartments competed to see who could raise the most money. Student Congress organized a bulletin board to help displaced students communicate with each other. The Physical Plant’s housing maintenance team donated 69 mattresses to the Salvation Army. The Alumni Association donated proceeds from wristband sales.

“Everybody’s been so nice,” Le said. “It’s a beautiful school.”

And a compassionate one.

“If we weren’t staying here, we’d be at the Salvation Army or some other place instead of being able to go to school by just walking across the street,” said Nguyen, who earned six credit hours in the fall semester. “Eric and Carol offering us a place to stay was the best thing to come out of this.”

No argument from the Leidleins.

“We’ve grown to love Diane and Trinh very much. Just to know them and their families has been an unexpected blessing,” Carol said in November. “But one of the sad realities is that they’ll eventually have to leave.”

That emotional day came at the end of the semester. Nguyen returned to New Orleans to help her dad run one of the family’s dry cleaning stores. Dinh went to live with another cousin but plans to continue her education at UT Arlington.

“You don’t always realize what you’ll receive when you open up your home,” Eric said. “We’re really grateful for the friendship and laughter we’ve shared.”

“Lots of laughter,” Carol added.

For Dinh and Nguyen, it was the perfect gift in the most uncertain of times.

— Mark Permenter

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