By Jonathan Truitt
We started this blog as an effort to humanize what it is we, as historians do. We wanted to showcase our research, teaching, committee work, travels, and home life. Put simply we wanted those who interact with us in our professional lives to have a better understanding of what it’s really like to be a professional historian and educator. I was hired at Central Michigan nine years ago to help expand our research into Latin America and connections to Latin America. This past month has been torturous. Earthquakes and hurricanes have ravaged the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and the U.S. South and Southwest. All of these are areas that I study. Aside from having friends, colleagues, and loved ones in these regions I also have a more immediate understanding of what they are going through as I was a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I was fortunate in that my family and I were able to evacuate to my parent’s place in Birmingham, Alabama. Their small house soon became a temporary refuge for many of my friends who were also fleeing the ravages of the hurricane.
Then, as now with Puerto Rico, our government failed to act as soon as it should have. Where our government failed, our companies and universities stepped in. As soon as people were aware that New Orleans was not going to be able to function on the level required to sustain its population, companies started moving their employees. My wife and I were relocated to Denver by my wife’s employer, Banfield the Pet Hospital — where she had been employed for all of a week before the hurricane hit. They paid for her new state license, our moving expenses, and turned a part-time job into a full-time position. They did not make money on this endeavor; they did it because they could, and they wanted to help. In my case the University of Colorado, Denver stepped up and provided me with office space, access to their library, and the opportunity to give lectures. The University of California also called and offered to have me join them there for the semester. Other friends and colleagues shifted to the University of Arizona, the University of Texas, and many other locations. Ordinary people stepped up and helped while the government tried to sort things out. The outpouring of help was amazing and I have never forgotten it.
This past month I have been trying desperately to repay the kindness that was shown to me. So far, I have found many people who want to help, but despite a meeting with the president of my university I have not been able to accomplish my goal. However, hope is still out there. This past week Tulane University issued an offer to Puerto Rican students in need . Simply stated they are paying forward the assistance provided them during Katrina. I could not be prouder of my alma mater. I am hoping we can build on this momentum. I reached out to Jeff Schiffman, the director of admission and one of the organizers of the effort (for more on the organization of the effort see this article: "Tulane Extends a Helping Hand..." ). In his reply, he stated that the number of applications they have received from Puerto Rican students is higher than one university can handle. But this is where we can help, currently many colleges and universities in Michigan and elsewhere across the U.S. have lower-than-normal enrollments. Most have at least some dorm rooms — and some have many —that stand empty. With seats open in our classrooms and beds open in our dormitories I am asking institutions to open their doors to U.S. citizens enrolled in institutions that cannot reopen immediately in the affected areas. This act will cost us little but will help the affected individuals and their home communities greatly.
How will it help communities in Puerto Rico and other affected areas? At the moment the cost of food, gasoline, and other supplies are astronomically high. Helping people leave the area will allow them to progress with their studies and decrease the demand on essential supplies. When things have stabilized the students can bring their skills home to help with the ongoing cleanup and return to their home institutions. The cleanup process is long and arduous. It will still be there when these students return, but if we extend the help I envision here they will have continued to progress in their degrees and will be able to deploy those skills as well.
Here is where you, dear reader, come in. We are following the precedent of those who have responded before us in other crises. Reach out to your nearby companies and universities, show them our letter if it will help. Challenge them to open their dorms and classrooms. If they are not a university have them look at what they do and see what they might be able to provide. If we are able to get movement from more schools we can create a ground swell and start taking next steps. Tulane has taken the first steps, I believe CMU and others can follow suit. Before I end I want to acknowledge that this targets people who are in a privileged position. I desperately want to help everyone, citizen and non-citizen alike. My hope is that we will all continue to think of ways to do just that. As I said above, this is one of the first steps, but there will be many.
To bring this back to where I started this post, I am a social and cultural historian. Among other things, this means I think constantly about the people and places I study. I have studied great disasters and amazing acts of human kindness. I am hoping that all of us can demonstrate our own humanity at this time.
Todos Somos Humanos. We are all human.