Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., struck a chord at Dillard University’s May 19 commencement when she noted that several Dillard students who received federal assistance payments after Hurricane Katrina were asked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repay the money.
“You don’t need more empty promises. You don’t need more talk,” Clinton said. “You don’t need more bureaucracy. If talk, bureaucracy, and promises were enough, we would have built New Orleans three times over by now.”
It was part of her message about Gulf Coast recovery as she spent a weekend touring New Orleans, attending a Friday evening fundraiser, meeting with local civic leaders and speaking at Dillard’s commencement.
“When Americans suffer, America does as well,” Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, told the graduates. “Today, I want to be very clear: Rebuilding this city is not just an obligation of New Orleans or Louisiana. It is an American obligation.
“Although our government has stumbled, we will find our way,” she continued.
Hurricane Katrina left Dillard under up to 10 feet of water and caused more than $400 million in damages. Several buildings remain closed and under construction while the school’s administration works from a downtown office on Poydras Street. The hundreds of Dillard students asked to repay FEMA money were dormitory residents who, according to federal officials, were ineligible for the aid. After months of protests, FEMA announced on May 8 that students would be eligible for assistance if they can demonstrate that they were housed in dormitories for the major portion of the school year.
Clinton joined the graduating class of 2007 by marching on the Rosa Freeman Keller Avenue of the Oaks for Dillard’s 138th commencement.
It was Dillard’s second post-Katrina commencement ceremony, but the first in which students were actually living and studying on campus.
Bullhorns sounded and photo flashes flickered through the audience as graduates and attendees eagerly anticipated Clinton’s address, in which she encouraged the graduates to live a life that reflects heroism to create better hope for New Orleans.
The presidential candidate told the 2007 graduates that they had learned at a young age that they will be faced with picking up their lives and starting over. She commended them for a good job on revitalizing their community and preserving the Gentilly area, where the campus is located.
But she said she was disappointed that almost two years after Katrina, the government still had not developed a reliable hurricane protection system.
“Unfortunately, the federal government did not hold up their end of the bargain,” said Clinton. “From emergency response programs to rebuilding public works, the federal government failed.
“A natural disaster became a national disgrace and an international embarrassment,” she said.
However, Clinton said she was confident that America will move forward and implement a better hurricane disaster action plan for the city.
She also advised the 182 graduates to give thanks to the family, friends and others who helped them along the way. “Some are only here in spirit but they are with you,” said Clinton. “They have guided you and I know you are grateful to them!”
Dillard’s President Dr. Marvalene Hughes said, “the class of 2007 exemplifies greatness and fortitude in an unprecedented manner. Their strength and endurance distinguish them as survivors who battled a major hurricane and its aftermath to engage in the rebuilding process even though they lived and learned at the Hilton Hotel,” the temporary campus.
“It’s amazing that Dr. Hughes was able to have Sen. Clinton to come speak at the graduation,” said the 2007-08 Student Government Association President, Ronnell Perry. “It was a historical moment, because Clinton could possibly be the first female president of the United States.”
“The University benefited from her appearance, as well as Clinton,” said Karen Celestan, senior director of university communications. “It was a win-win for both sides.”
Clinton was among one of many who received an honorary doctorate. Others were Frank J. Mason, a Dillard alumnus and trustee who is a former Citibank vice president, and singer Roberta Flack.
Photos and video clips of Clinton’s commencement address can be found on Dillard University’s Web site, www.dillard.edu.