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Galveston students heading home

Associated Press Modified: December 10, 2008 at 9:51 am •  Published: December 10, 2008
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MCT REGIONAL NEWS

By Vimal Patel

The Eagle, Bryan, Texas

(MCT)

Dec. 10--Victoria Bissonnet gazed in awe at the hulking Kyle Field.

''I'm a small-town girl," said the sophomore marine biology major from Texas A&M's Galveston campus, recalling the first time earlier this semester that she passed by the stadium. "It's so big. How do you even function here?"

Bissonnet was among more than 1,500 Galveston students who relocated to College Station for the semester after Hurricane Ike hit Sept. 13.

As students finish finals Wednesday and begin to head back to Galveston, where classes begin again in January, many have a similar sentiment: Thanks for everything, College Station, but we're ready to go home.

''I wanted to be part of the Aggie family," said Calvin Kalu, a junior marine biology major, explaining his decision to attend Galveston, "but I also wanted to go to a small school."

The students expressed gratitude to the Texas A&M College Station campus community, which housed them for 2 1/2 months. But they long for the small-town feel of their campus, where everyone knows everyone, dorms are about a five-minute walk from class and free time is spent lazily on the beach.

''Life there is slower for the most part," said Mike Spiers, student body president for the Galveston campus. "There's a laid-back mentality. ... There's a real relaxing feel to it, with the ocean right there. We have to love the ocean because every major we offer is ocean-based."

The students brought Galveston traditions to College Station and created their own sense of community. They held barbecues and invited comedians to perform for the students, things they do at their campus.

And the night before finals started last week, they held their annual "midnight breakfast" -- where they feasted on eggs, pancakes, waffles, fruit, biscuits, gravy and more -- a small slice of home.

''It was one of the best 1/8midnight breakfasts3/8 I've seen," Spiers said.

It's been a long semester for the students uprooted from their homes as well as for the Galveston and College Station officials who pulled off the relocation effort.

Within 11 days of Ike's landfall, Galveston students sat in College Station campus classrooms continuing their semester.

A solid evacuation plan already existed for the island campus, said R. Bowen Loftin, vice president and chief executive of the Galveston campus. But it wasn't until 2005 when then-A&M President Robert Gates and Loftin met that a plan to relocate to College Station was developed, he said.

The relocation of so many students to the College Station campus, which already had a record enrollment of more than 48,000 students, required an "extraordinary" effort by the Galveston and College Station staffs and forced officials to become creative, Loftin said.

Areas within Sbisa Dining Hall and A&M United Methodist Church turned into makeshift classrooms. And students gathered around videoconference screens to learn from professors in other locations.

''We did it," Loftin said. "We had to solve literally thousands of small problems. No one ever said we couldn't do this. No one ever said this was too hard. ... Aggies do have a spirit, and this exemplifies that spirit."

The relocation effort cost about $3 million, the bulk of which went for housing. Loftin said the goal was to make sure students didn't have to pay extra for being here. Community members offered free housing, and the university paid additional costs.

Emergency repair, debris removal and fixing physical damage to the campus cost about $6 million, lower than initial estimates, said Karen Bigley, a spokeswoman for the branch campus.

Officials filed paperwork with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement, but they are uncertain how much they will get or when.

''If I could answer that question, I'd be a very popular man," Loftin said.

Danielle Canga, 22, finished her finals Tuesday and planned to drive to Galveston on Wednesday to put her stuff in storage.

She loves the beach but is concerned that Galveston after the storm won't be the same. During a Thanksgiving trip home, she saw litter strewn on the beach. A fast-food restaurant she frequented is gone. And several shops and restaurants remained closed because of the flooding.

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(c) 2008, The Eagle, Bryan, Texas

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.