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For those of us in the higher education community, the hurricane hit home in yet another way.

The start of any new academic year brings the usual mixture of anticipation and excitement. This year is certainly no exception. But as I look back at the first week of the fall semester, I’m mindful of another strong emotion many of us also feel: compassion.

Hurricane Katrina delivered its unimaginable destruction on the Gulf Coast just two weeks ago, and we’ve all seen the many sobering images of the storm’s devastating impact. Some of us have friends or family members who lost their homes, or even their lives.

For those of us in the higher education community, the hurricane hit home in yet another way. Thousands of students at colleges and universities in the Gulf Coast suddenly found themselves without a school to return to this fall – schools like Tulane, Loyola and Xavier University of Louisiana all suffered extensive damage from the storm. As these students looked around for assistance, they found help at the other end of the Mississippi River.

On Sept. 1, we announced an emergency admissions policy for students enrolled at colleges hit by the hurricane. In the first few days, a handful of students applied for admission at the Twin Cities campus. By Friday, nearly 50 students had enrolled at the Twin Cities campus and were already attending classes – aided by a Board of Regents-approved policy that waives University tuition for these students if they have already paid for classes at one of the affected institutions. For some, a transfer to the University means they still have the chance to graduate in four years.

Across the University of Minnesota system, offers to help have come pouring in. Our Duluth, Morris and Crookston campuses all announced their willingness to accept displaced students on a case-by-case basis. Other colleges on the Twin Cities campus began discussing ways in which they could offer living, lab and office space to faculty and students from affected institutions. The department of art history voted to allocate an entire fund that would have supported faculty research to instead support a qualified Tulane art history graduate student. These are just a few examples of support organized by larger University units.

On a smaller scale – but equally impressive – have been the notes and phone calls from students and staff who volunteered to help. Several students have offered to share spare rooms in their homes or apartments. One staff member, who had just met a newly admitted student who arrived here with little more than the clothes on her back, was wondering how she might help organize a fund to pay for new students’ textbooks.

Once again, the University community responded. Thanks to enterprising work by many people, the University played a leadership role in “Storm Aid: Minnesota’s River of Relief.” Working with the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, the University sponsored a “radiothon” Friday on the Washington Avenue Bridge that raised money for people devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the process, more than 200 interviews displayed the University’s wealth of compassion and expertise.

And last, but certainly not least, nearly 200 volunteers from the University of Minnesota Medical Reserve Corps are awaiting a federal or state-authorized request to help victims in New Orleans and in other Gulf regions hit by Hurricane Katrina. The MRC’s volunteer team is made up of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, epidemiologists and other health professionals and students from the University’s Academic Health Center. The corps was formed two years ago to assist the state and nation in the event of a public health crisis or natural disaster.

The University’s 154-year commitment to public service is alive and well.

So welcome and welcome back to all of you – the class of 2009, returning students, faculty and staff – and a special welcome to our new colleagues. There is much work remaining to help the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and to rebuild the communities they were forced to leave, but we can be proud of the hospitality and generosity the University community has already demonstrated.

Let’s continue to reach out with the same creativity and passion we devote to education, research and all the other pursuits that make the University such a special place. You can go to our Web site at www.umn.edu to find out how you can volunteer to help and contribute even more.

Bob Bruininks is president of the University of Minnesota. Please send comments to [email protected]