On the evening before classes began for her senior year at Texas A&M University, Kristen Cole watched a rescuer carry her 10-year-old cousin and a teddy bear to safety through knee-deep floodwater.
Normally, she would have spent the past few days setting up her apartment and going dancing with friends in College Station. Instead, she has been in her parents’ truck tracking down relatives and driving from grocery store to grocery store — almost all of them closed — looking for food to serve her diabetic grandfather. As her first classes convened at A&M on Wednesday, she remained holed up in her parents’ Katy home with nine other people and six pets. Their house has managed to stay dry, but it is surrounded by flooded streets.
“I have family in Cy-Fair who have water in their house now. I have family in Dickinson. I have family in Pasadena, in Santa Fe and Midtown,” she said, listing towns and Houston-area neighborhoods that have been wrecked by Hurricane Harvey. “It’s difficult to get back into the swing of things when you can’t even go to the store to get meat to make your grandpa dinners.”
Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of students across the Houston area and Gulf Coast are in the same boat. While their hometowns are deluged, their universities are dry and ready to begin class. Some students made it to campus, where they will try to focus despite the destruction back home. Others remain stuck, adding the fear that they’ll begin the semester behind their peers to an already sky-high pile of worries.
The University of Texas at Austin, which began classes Wednesday, estimates that nearly one-third of its students come from counties affected by the storm. Texas A&M, which is less than 100 miles from Houston, also has a large share. A&M was originally scheduled to begin school Monday, but delayed its opening two days.
It’s difficult to say how many students will miss the first days of classes at universities across the state. Some made it out of town before the storm hit. Others stuck around to help their families, or found themselves trapped by flooded roads on the way out of Harris County.
Lexus Nguyen, also an A&M student from Katy, said she was unable to find a safe route to campus, and will stay home until Labor Day. That’ll mean three days of missed class.
“I really don’t want to miss a lecture, but it seems like I have no choice,” she said Tuesday. “It’s flooded everywhere. If I get my parents to drive me to College Station, and if something goes wrong during the process, I might regret it for the rest of my life.”
University officials say they recognize the dilemma and are trying to be as accommodating as possible. University presidents at Texas Tech University, UT-Austin and A&M instructed professors to excuse the absences of students affected by the storm. A&M asked students who were having trouble reaching campus to call a hotline for help. UT-Austin students were encouraged to fill out an online form notifying the university of their expected absence.
Meanwhile, universities are offering counseling and other support for students who made it to campus before the storm.
“Students already on campus may have family and friends in the affected areas who have experienced severe losses resulting from inclement weather or flooding,” Texas Tech Provost Michael Galyean wrote in an e-mail to faculty on the first day of class Monday. “Some of these students may feel a need to return to their families to provide assistance.”
At Baylor University in Waco, which began class Aug. 21, administrators wrote personalized e-mails to the nearly 4,000 students who come from areas hit by Harvey.
“We wanted students to know that we cared about them,” said Martha Lou Scott, associate vice president for student life at Baylor. “We knew that it was difficult to be in Waco when their hearts and thoughts were back home.”
Scott said some students wrote back to say they had gone home. Many others said they were looking for ways to help. But she said it’s clear that some students are struggling. There are freshmen who just left home for the first time, and now are grappling with the possibility that their childhood homes are destroyed. Others have relatives living with them in off-campus apartments. Scott said she expects the requests for help to come in waves.
“The next wave will be the realization that ‘I am not coping in class and I can’t just get this out of my mind — I need more help than I thought I was going to need,'” Scott said. “After that is going to come the wave of realizing that just because the rain stopped doesn’t mean that everything is going to go back to the way it was. Maybe the reality of what home looked like before they went to Baylor is no longer that reality.”
School officials across the state say they’ll be watching those students, and trying to provide as much help as they can.
Meanwhile, Cole said she expects she’ll make it from Katy to College Station this weekend. But she said leaving home won’t be easy.
“It’s hard to go from protecting your family to, ‘Let’s go to school,'” she said.