The Education After the Storm

In this Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 photo, a man squats in the rubble of an oceanfront neighborhood in Atlantic City N.J. Two weeks
In this Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 photo, a man squats in the rubble of an oceanfront neighborhood in Atlantic City N.J. Two weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit the region, many of Atlantic City's poorest residents are enduring its aftermath with quiet acceptance and gratitude for the help being offered to them. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

New Jersey's coastline, Staten Island, Manhattan, Queens, and many other areas throughout the Northeast were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The storm made landfall on October 29, 2012, and more than two weeks later, thousands still remain without power.

Some in the region have described the situation as "our Katrina," and there are certainly many parallels. Lives have been lost; homes have been destroyed; businesses have been disrupted; and the scope of the damage is yet unknown. Early estimates of the recovery costs range from $33 billion to more than $100 billion, and that is simply for New Jersey. Those numbers also fail to capture the psychological damage brought on by this crisis. All we really know at this time is that what we are experiencing is unprecedented and that there is a vast amount of suffering.

When a crisis of such magnitude strikes, it's not unusual to feel powerless -- as though the challenge is insurmountable and our contribution to recovery can't possibly make much of a difference. That conclusion, however, is simply untrue.

I believe our collective efforts will enable the region to rebuild faster and stronger than we believe, and I think institutions of higher education can (and, in fact, should) play an important role in that process.

The efforts to rebuild begin with looking outward to assess the damage on and beyond our campuses and inward to assess the assets our institutions can muster to help in the rebuilding effort. We must take stock not only of how our campuses came through the storm but also how our people (students, faculty, and staff) were and continue to be affected. Most institutions throughout our region will have students, faculty, and staff members who have lost their homes and most, if not all, of their personal property. We must be attuned to their needs, because their path to success has been littered with obstacles and debris. There will be pressure to accommodate needs that we had not previously foreseen, and it is imperative that institutions of higher education display the greatest degree of agility and flexibility possible when working with those in our campus communities whose lives have been so shockingly disrupted.

In addition, colleges and universities should look to understand the scope of the crisis off our campuses and to identify resources that can serve the communities in which we reside. At The College of New Jersey, we have launched a college-run recovery campaign managed by our Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement, a best-in-class service-learning and leadership-development program. Students, faculty, and staff are engaged in ongoing cleanup activities within our local community, at shore towns, and at other locations throughout the region. They also have organized supply-collection and blood drives while reaching out to affected communities and seeking to meet to specific needs. The scope and type of activities we are conducting will evolve over time, because this cannot be a short-term campaign. Right now, we are doing what we can to help address the vital needs of those most directly affected, but we also envision opportunities for our students and faculty to apply their learning and research in ways that will augment the rebuilding and recovery process. The specifics of those efforts will be governed by many factors, including need and expertise, but I am certain that the faculty, staff, and students who embrace the call to help will experience a very profound type of educational experience as well as the sense of gratification derived from doing the right thing at the right time for our families, neighbors, friends, and strangers.