Russian exchange student stays positive amid disaster

Leslie Schelat

Hurricanes in Louisiana are like rain in Russia – little wind and no damage.

At least that’s what Polina Ermolaeva, an exchange student from Kazan, Russia, was told when she asked a fellow University of New Orleans student if she should worry about Hurricane Katrina.

Two weeks later, UNO is shut down, New Orleans has been evacuated and life in Louisiana will never be the same.

Ermolaeva has been relocated to Kent State University, where she is again settling into a new school, a new residence hall and new friends. But her path here has not been easy.

After arriving in New Orleans on Aug. 19, Ermolaeva moved into her residence hall and attended a week of classes before Hurricane Katrina began to threaten the Gulf Coast.

“I was sitting in the library searching the Internet for my research paper and all of the sudden it came up on the screen of the computer that UNO would be closed from Aug. 27 through Aug. 30 due to Hurricane Katrina,” Ermolaeva said.

The university recommended students go somewhere west of New Orleans, but to Ermolaeva and many other UNO students, it did not sound urgent.

“It sounded like it was an advisement, not an obligation,” Ermolaeva said.

Because she had never experienced a hurricane and did not have anywhere to go, she was unsure of what to do, she said.

Luckily, Ermolaeva befriended a fellow student, Taryn Thomas, in her short time at UNO.

“She came to my room and invited me to her family’s home in Lafayette, La.,” Ermolaeva said. “I packed neither too heavy nor too big, only my necessities – T-shirts, medicine, shampoo – because I believed and was more than certain it was only for a couple days.”

The seriousness of the situation slowly became apparent as Ermolaeva and Thomas made their way west to Lafayette. The two hour drive dragged on for eight hours as thousands of people clogged the highways.

“It was like a mess,” recollects Ermolaeva. “Everyone was evacuating with all of their stuff, even boats and horses!”

For the next week, Lafayette was saturated by heavy rain while Ermolaeva and the Thomas family watched the situation unfold on the television.

Ermolaeva said she is eternally grateful to Thomas and her family for their hospitality and willingness to take her in.

“The more I watched, the more I realized from what horrible things I escaped from,” Ermolaeva said. “I was realizing that if I hadn’t befriended Taryn, I would certainly be among all the poor and hopeless people trapped in the Superdome or somewhere worse.”

When it became apparent that she would not be returning to UNO, her sponsor, the Eurasian Undergraduate Exchange Program, part of the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, placed her at Kent State.

Since then, the program has provided assistance in contacting her family and replacing the belongings she left in her room at UNO, which she said are now “swimming.”

“It seemed to me that now everything should work out,” Ermolaeva said. “But, no way! My adventures were not finished.”

Ermolaeva arrived in Kent on Sept. 2, in time for the holiday weekend. Because of some misplaced paperwork, she couldn’t move into her room until Monday, so she spent Labor Day with physics department employee Cindy Miller and her family.

“I came to my Allyn Hall dorm on Monday to put away my stuff, but found out it was burned close to my room,” Ermolaeva said.

Her assigned room was 317. The Sept. 5 fire was in Room 316.

“We were shocked to go over there and see yellow tape around her dorm,” Miller said. “I can’t imagine going to a foreign country and having most of my belongings destroyed in a flood and then being burned out of my dorm.”

Even so, making the adjustment to yet another new environment has not posed much of a challenge for Ermolaeva. She was reassigned to Centennial Court D, started classes and is beginning to make friends.

“I really believe that everything that is happening is happening for a reason, and in my case, happening for the best,” Ermolaeva said. “Now I am living in a much better place to compared with those I was supposed to live, studying in a highly prestigious university and a whole year of unforgettable impressions is waiting for me to discover.”

Looking back, Ermolaeva knows her first encounter with the United States will not be forgotten.

“I’m thinking of writing a book, a journal of my personal experiences,” she said. “I saw history in the making.”

When it comes down to it, Ermolaeva believes that had she not met the people she did, she may have ended up alone in New Orleans or without a place to stay in Kent.

“I’ve made real American friends and now I can call them my second family,” Ermolaeva said. “They’re priceless people. They saved my life.”

Contact general assignment reporter Leslie Schelat at [email protected].