Students will return to Jacksonville State University starting Saturday, but not exactly to the campus they remember.
About five months have passed since a tornado damaged or destroyed several JSU buildings, dorms and off-campus housing. Repairs have been underway for most of that time and are at the point where administrators say they’re confident they can provide a relatively normal fall semester for students. Still, students and faculty alike can expect some growing pains, from relocated classrooms and less parking space to ongoing construction and fewer housing options.
Tim King, JSU vice president for student affairs, said finding housing and allocating classroom space for students were the university’s two main missions this summer. The tornado knocked out two private apartment complexes that housed mainly students. Meanwhile Merrill Hall, home to the school of business and industry, was destroyed and is slated for demolition. Also, half of Mason Hall, which houses the music department, and the nursing department’s Wallace Hall will be closed for repairs and upgrades through next year.
“It’s been a monumental undertaking trying to figure all that out,” King said.
For the most part, it appears administrators have succeeded. King said alternate classroom space was found for all affected departments. For instance, the school of business and industry will operate out of the former Kitty Stone Elementary, owned by the university. Nursing students will be spread around campus, including the Houston Cole Library and the Jacksonville hospital, which was closed and donated to JSU earlier this summer.
“We’ll still be operating the same … still have the same classes and activities,” King said. “It will just be in an alternative format.”
King said the university would help students acclimate to the new classrooms over the first few weeks.
“We’ll get ambassadors who will work to direct students where they need to be because we will have classes all over the place,” King said. “For a lack of a better word, we will have traffic control.”
To address the reduction in housing, the university has approved more exemptions than normal to the requirement that freshmen live on campus. The more students who agree to live at home and still attend classes, the more campus housing is freed up for students unable to do the same.
The university also reached out to local clergy to see if any of their congregations’ members could house students for the fall.
More recently, JSU bought 22 mobile homes to house students this fall. The two-bedroom homes will be located on Mountain Street Northwest and Goodlett Avenue Northwest. Several of the mobile homes were seen delivered to campus on Friday.
“I’m sure there will be adjustments and we’ll be addressing housing issues in the first weeks of school,” King said of the housing situation. “But if a student needs a room, we will find somewhere for them … we won’t turn anyone away.”
A helping hand
The university didn’t just address campus facility needs this summer. It also helped students and faculty affected by the tornado get back on their feet.
Charles Lewis, executive director of the JSU Foundation, the charitable arm of the university, said $170,000 in donations have been distributed to about 200 students and faculty who applied for aid. The foundation still had only distributed about half of the tornado relief donations it collected.
“We’re still receiving requests from employees and students and that will continue throughout the next several months, especially when students get back to class,” Lewis said.
Students mainly applied for money to replace personal items that were lost in the storm, Lewis said.
“For the employees, it was for the loss of personal items and other losses that insurance would not cover,” he said.
Lewis said the foundation is now shifting focus to helping the university recoup money it has spent to repair and rebuild. JSU has started receiving federal money for the tornado damage, but it only covers the cost of debris removal.
“We’ll start fundraising for various facilities and improvements,” Lewis said.
Those repairs and improvements were still well underway across campus Friday. Several buildings have been surrounded by fences and scaffolding for months, but should not be for much longer, said Jim Brigham, JSU vice president for finance.
“In the next week or two, much of that will be done and the security fencing will be coming down as each building gets done,” Brigham said.
Brigham added that as the buildings are completed, fencing, construction equipment and supplies taking up scarce parking space would be removed.
Brigham noted that the university’s student shuttle service called Gamecock Express would be fully available at the start of the semester, but with some different routes.
“There will be some route changes to accommodate the Jacksonville hospital and some to accommodate the school of business and industry at Kitty Stone,” Brigham said.
Kasey Gamble, president of the JSU Student Government Association, said she thinks the biggest concern students have right now is whether their school year will turn out to be relatively normal.
“I think the concern will be how it will be kind of crazy and hectic trying to find and get to classes and about how long it’s going to take and get back to normal,” Gamble said. “But I think our students are very understanding about what’s going on right now.”
The university as a whole also expects some challenges beyond recovery work, particularly with enrollment.
Emily Messer, JSU associate vice president of enrollment management, said research shows that higher education institutions can see as much as a 10 percent drop in enrollment after a disaster like a tornado.
“We have been anticipating a slight decrease,” Messer said of enrollment. “We’re not sure yet where we’ll land, but it does look like it’ll be down slightly.”
Any drop in enrollment is a concern for JSU, which relies on tuition to cover about 60 percent of its annual budget.
Messer said that so far, it appears freshman enrollment will be flat and that the downturn is in returning students.
“We’re thinking that is related to the lack of off-campus housing,” Messer said.
Messer said staff in her office, as well as department deans, have been working hard, calling and texting students for months to make sure they’d return.
And in a couple of weeks, Messer’s department will switch to recruiting students for fall 2019.
“We are just going to let people know that we’re in a rebuilding but will be better than ever … that by the time students get here next fall, things will be great,” Messer said.
Messer said she and many students have been impressed with how much the university has done already to recover from the tornado and accommodate students.
“Our university has gone so fast to get things repaired as fast as possible,” Messer said. “It has honestly amazed me.”
King said he’s proud of what administrators and faculty have done to help make JSU whole again.
“It’s a testament to how the campus has come together to pull this off,” King said. “It’s really unbelievable.”