RALEIGH — Mobs of wide-eyed freshmen weaved their way through courtyards. Parents hauled their kids' weight in luggage - and shed their own weight while sweating under the summer sun. Administrators scrambled to finish each form and document.
Most colleges can safely bet on this back-to-school scene playing out each year. But few might have dreamed it four months ago at Shaw University.
The South's oldest historically black college was ravaged by a tornado April 16. The vortex touched down in the center of campus, damaging 27 buildings. Shaw ended its spring semester early, and on-campus housing was closed to summer school students.
"I expected to see leftover ruin," Kevin Collins-Nelson, a student orientation leader, said in front of the science building Sunday as he directed freshmen to their dorms.
Collins-Nelson, a sophomore, witnessed the chaos and mountain of debris his school would have to conquer.
To his surprise, all classrooms and dorms are open, and little evidence of wreckage remains.
The sidewalks of the 146-year-old downtown campus, once blanketed with fallen branches, have a newly swept gleam.
Dorm room windows have been restored, and Estey Hall's copper roof is a week from being replaced.
The hallways of the men's dorm gleam with new tile, new paint, new lights and new furniture.
"A lot of us looked at it as a godsend, a needed excuse to replace the old," Collins-Nelson said.
The only major adjustment to campus life will be where students eat for the next six months. Incoming students have already nicknamed the $560,000 FEMA-built temporary cafeteria.
"The caf" sits behind the men's dorm, which is across a courtyard from The Willie E. Gary Student Center, where they used to eat.
The Gary Center was hit hardest by the storm. Its roof was ripped off.
It will be renovated by the spring semester.
650 first impressions
Freshmen - many of whom saw footage of their damaged future school after they had been accepted - were impressed with the school's turnaround.
Abraham Ehrmwenman of Chicago, who applied after the storm, didn't know whether he'd have a dorm to live in.
"It looks good; you can't hardly tell anything was damaged," he said Sunday as he sat outside his renovated dorm building.
Shaw's freshman enrollment is expected to be a healthy 650 students. That's higher than the school's average enrollment, but lower than the 700 freshmen welcomed last year.
From disaster, rebirth
"We're a school of resiliency," said Jeffrey Smith, the university's vice president of student affairs. "We're up and running. We're full-scale."
The damage the university encountered - which totaled between $3 million and $4 million - would have been a challenge for any school. But it was particularly difficult for Shaw.
In 2009, Shaw was more than $20 million in debt. The university was tossed a lifeline last year when then-U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge secured a $31 million federal loan for the school.
An acorn of optimism
Shaw University President Irma McClaurin said Sunday that she hopes the new construction spurs a rebirth.
"We've had years of deferred maintenance," McClaurin said. "This is an opportunity to make Shaw better than before."
McClaurin says she'll take her "Imagining More" program - an effort to improve upon prior blueprints - to private investors and alumni across the country.
"We still have a funding challenge," she said. "The goal is to boost donations more aggressively."
On campus Sunday, Collins-Nelson stood in the shade near the chapel.
A few yards behind him, a 15-foot patch of red clay marked where a 100-year-old oak once stood.
In front of him, freshmen and their families passed by. None of them mentioned April's storms.
"It seems like the excitement here has skyrocketed," Collins-Nelson said. "I think that tornado may have put us on the map."
email@example.com or 919-829-4826