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Displaced Bahamian students find safe haven at Hampton University

More than 40 students welcomed for the fall semester after Hurricane Dorian

HAMPTON, Va. — More than 40 Bahamian students who endured the devastation of Hurricane Dorian in September have found an academic safe haven, shelter and a welcoming community at Hampton University.

The University of the Bahamas and Hampton announced an agreement to relocate some students affected by Hurricane Dorian to Hampton’s North Campus for the remainder of the 2019 fall semester. The first students arrived soon after and are thrilled to be at Hampton.

“Everyone’s heart is so big. After everything we’ve been through, walking into my room and seeing a comforter and sheets on my bed made me want to cry,” said LaKiesa Saunders, a University of the Bahamas sophomore who arrived at Hampton on Sept. 23.

Saunders almost didn’t accept Hampton’s offer because she believed that she was needed at home. The Category 5 storm caused roof damage and broke a door in her house. Hurricane Dorian was the most intense storm to strike the Bahamas and was considered the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. As of Oct. 8, the death toll had reached 61, while the number of people missing remains in the hundreds.

LaKiesa Saunders said Hurricane Dorian damaged the roof and a door in her house.

“Right up to going on the plane, it was scary. If there was one small reason for me to go home, I was going to go,” she said. “My first thoughts were to take a semester off to stay home and work to aid my family. But my mom saw this as God’s blessing and encouraged me to take the opportunity.”

Another Bahamian student initially thought Hampton’s offer was a hoax.

“I had to make sure that it wasn’t fake. I had all these emotions running through me, and it was hard to believe,” said sophomore Branden Mckenzie. “When I did confirm that it was real, it gave me hope that I could go back to school, because nothing at home is going to be normal anytime soon.”

The agreement came about when Hampton president William R. Harvey called his friend Rodney Smith, a former administrator at Hampton who is now the president at the University of the Bahamas, to see how he was doing. Smith was holding up just fine, but he told Harvey that the campus was “devastated.”

The Circle of Nations on Hampton University’s campus has flags which represent the countries of currently enrolled undergraduate students, including a Bahamian flag. Hampton has taken in 43 students from the University of the Bahamas-North campus, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian.

Melissa Lyttle for The Undefeated

The following morning, Harvey told NPR he called Smith back and presented the offer.

The displaced students will have their tuition and room and board paid for the fall semester at Hampton. Once the semester is done, they have the option to stay at Hampton and pay the regular rates for tuition, room and board. The full cost to attend Hampton totals nearly $41,000 per year.

This is not the first time an institution has helped hurricane victims by offering free tuition, room and board.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 and destroyed its infrastructure while leaving millions of people without water, power and cellphone service. Tulane University coordinated with the University of Puerto Rico to enroll 17 students for one semester, with almost all on-campus expenses paid. New York University, Brown University, Cornell University and the University of Rochester also made similar tuition-free offers. Institutions that offer this kind of assistance to students affected by hurricanes give them a chance to continue their education and receive necessary assistance for any trauma suffered from the effects of the disaster.

Interest from the Bahamian students spiked, and within eight to 10 hours of Hampton’s offer they had received interest from 22 students. At its highest point the number skyrocketed to 151. If Hampton had paid for all 151 students, the cost would be close to $3 million. And while many were interested, only 43 Bahamian students arrived at Hampton by late September.

At one point there were concerns about getting the students to the United States. Soon enough, the total donation amount reached approximately $300,000. HU board member Zachary Scott contributed two-thirds of that total by committing $100,000 to cover travel expenses. Along with Scott, Jamal H. Bryant, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, committed to paying for the airfare of all University of the Bahamas students.

The number dropped from 151 to 43 because before Scott and Bryant committed to paying for expenses, most students couldn’t afford the $2,000 to $3,000 cost of traveling to Hampton.

“Knowing 70,000 people are homeless [and] over 12,000 homes have been damaged is absolutely unnerving,” Bryant said in an interview with NBC12 Richmond. “I felt just out of human compassion, the church had to stand up.”

“The overwhelming show of support for our effort to bring these displaced students to our campus has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Harvey in an interview with NPR. “Thanks to the gift from board member Scott and others, we will be able to provide each student with an additional $500 for I-20 certificates, travel visas, immunization shots and insurance.”

Raddai Carroll (left) is unsure whether he will stay at Hampton after the fall semester. Rudolph Knowles-Tener Carroll (right) hopes to receive a scholarship to stay.

One Hamptonian from the Bahamas praised the move and sees it as an opportunity for students from her country.

“I personally think it’s a really good opportunity to allow Bahamians to get exposure outside of the norm, educationwise, that we’re used to at home,” said Daria Gibson, a junior pharmacy student. “It gives a chance to fully immerse into the culture and gain exposure.”

“I think this agreement is something that can be helpful to a great number of students and families and is part of something I’ve tried to do my entire career: helping people to achieve and meet their goals,” Harvey told NPR. “One of the things that Hampton has done since the very beginning is provide help to others.”

The Bahamian students are still in awe that they’re actually at Hampton.

“It doesn’t even feel real, and we can’t express how grateful we are,” said Mckenzie. “I want to make people feel as happy as this made me feel.”

Saunders teared up.

“It’s almost like a dream that people could be this generous. I’ve never experienced generosity like this before,” she said. “This made me feel like I can always go the extra mile to be there for someone else because Hampton went above and beyond for me.”

And while the students will be on campus for only a short time, Hampton students offered them a warm welcome.

“We as Hamptonians are opening our doors to these people into our home by the sea,” said Elliott Johnson, a junior at the university. “This is a great place to learn and excel. Hopefully, when these students arrive, they’ll see that Hampton truly is special.”

Randall is a 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a senior journalism and communications major from outside of Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. He is a former Bloomberg intern and is the sports editor for the Hampton Script. He 100% believes that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the greatest cartoon of all time.

Whitney is 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a senior journalism major from Cincinnati. She works at Hampton’s on-campus radio station, WHOV 88.1 FM. She is also a play-by-play commentator for women’s basketball games and a color commentator for football and men’s basketball.