HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — The first thing Carniesha Demeritte thought when she stepped onto the Hampton University campus?
"It's really big," she said. "It's just huge. Our campus is a block long. What would take a minute to walk on our campus would take 10 minutes here."
Demeritte is a freshman psychology major at University of the Bahamas, but for the next semester Hampton will be — as she was reminded many times on Sept. 24 — her home by the sea.
She is one of 46 students displaced by the devastation of Hurricane Dorian who will attend HU free of charge this fall while her campus at home is rebuilt.
HU President William R. Harvey extended the offer early this month, after the worst of the storm had moved on from the Bahamas but while residual rain and winds continued to last at the islands.
In all, 90 students completed applications. About half of them were able to make it work logistically, getting expedited student visas with help from HU's admissions department and the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas.
The students arrived on campus Sept. 24 and after tours and orientations, attended a brief welcoming ceremony at which Harvey told them: "Giving of yourself to another is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow. You are welcomed here not just because of the university president, but because of our staff and our faculty and our students and our band. Everybody wanted to give you a royal welcome — and it's so very genuine."
Indeed, HU's marching band performed before the ceremony and closed it out with the school's alma mater fight song. The new students from the Bahamas left with Hampton T-shirts and large grocery bags filled with toiletries, snacks and other necessities.
This initiative began with a phone call from Harvey to Rodney Smith, president of University of the Bahamas, who had previously served as administrative vice president and chief planning officer at HU. Harvey was pleased to hear that his former colleague was safe, but distraught by stories of a devastated campus, he called back the next day to offer free tuition and room and board for a semester for any displaced students.
A semester at Hampton — tuition, room and board, books and fees — costs about $15,000. Harvey said that "the overwhelming show of support for our effort to bring these displaced students to our campus has been nothing short of remarkable." He cited a $150,000 donation from Pastor Jamal Bryant and the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and a $100,000 from Zachary Scott, a member of HU's Board of Trustees.
Bahamasair paid for the students' transport out of Freeport, where their college is located. The donation from New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was among the funding that got them the rest of the way to Virginia. Harvey also read letters from individual citizens who sent $100 apiece to help with the effort.
"That kind of generosity renews my faith in humankind," Harvey said. "When we remind you to give back, we don't mean to Hampton. We mean to others. Because everyone can help somebody at one time or another."
Harvey concluded his greeting by assuring the students, "When you're here, you're home and we love you."
Donations are still be accepted through Hampton by calling the Office of Development at 757-727-5002.
The welcome ceremony included information on campus safety, health services and other details. Cornelia Waugh, a senior from Jamaica, urged the Bahamian students to check out the school's Caribbean Pre-Alumni Council, promising them, "Your semester here will be totally worth it."
Many of the students seemed a bit overwhelmed by their new surroundings and the events of the past few weeks. Krishona Minnis, a sophomore business management major, pulled out her cellphone to share photos of campus buildings that looked like they had been hit by wrecking balls.
But she said of her time at Hampton: "I want to experience as much as possible here. I want to meet people, and I want to gain as much knowledge as I can."
Demeritte, asked if she considered staying at home with her family as they began the process of cleaning up, said she never hesitated to come to HU.
"Not for a minute," she said, adding that she was looking forward to representing the Bahamas to her new classmates in Virginia.
She described her mindset as "tremendous, blessed and very grateful."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com