The College hosted about 100 students evacuated from the University of Wisconsin-Superior on April 26 and 27 in the wake of an explosion and fire at the Husky Energy Refinery near the UWS campus. UWS's senior leadership team set up a command center on the St. Scholastica campus during the emergency.
Because of potentially hazardous smoke in the area, the fire resulted in the evacuation of much of the Superior, WI, community, including UWS' dorms. At about 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, the local Red Cross asked President Colette Geary to activate St. Scholastica's campus as an emergency housing site for up to 800 students. She readily agreed.
All events and athletic practices in Burns Wellness Commons were canceled. UWS students were bused in from Superior and arrived on campus to a warm welcome. They enjoyed a dinner in the Greenview Dining Room, where staff members had gone into overdrive to prepare extra food.
Elizabeth Maeshima, who runs an intensive English language program at UWS, and her colleague Natalia McNab from the UWS Office of International Programs, came to St. Scholastica to help their students get settled in. They said that most of the UWS group were international students with nowhere else to go.
"It was hard at first," Maeshima said. "They don't even know what Scholastica is. A lot of them have only been here a few months, and they've maybe never come over the bridge because they don't have cars."
Maeshima and McNab said St. Scholastica's well-organized response and welcoming spirit made the best of a bad situation.
"People have been really helpful," Maeshima said. "Students are here to talk to them: ‘Oh, I'll show you where the cafeteria is.' Scholastica's been great."
"It means so much to see this and know this community is here, and it's great for our students to experience this and meet other students too," McNab said.
UWS freshman Zack Abt appreciated the hospitality.
"Everybody's been really nice," he said. "We met three people two seconds in, and they helped us figure out where to go."
Duluth restaurateurs Blackwoods also donated meals, most of which were ultimately sent to the primary evacuation location at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Rooms in BWC were designated for the UWS students to store their backpacks and other personal belongings, to play board games, and to have quiet space.
At about 7 p.m., St. Scholastica staff members put out a call for volunteers willing to share their rooms with UWS guests. They received an overwhelming response.
"Students were arriving [to volunteer] within probably two minutes of that email going out," said Dory Kempf, director of Student Support Services, who helped organize St. Scholastica's response efforts. "To know that you had more hosts than needed is amazing."
St. Scholastica sophomore Mary Rohde, who lives with three other women in Scanlon Hall, took in three UWS students.
"I wouldn't want them to have to sleep on the gym floor, because I know I wouldn't want to do that," she said.
St. Scholastica sophomore Nathan Schacht, who lives in Kerst Hall, also took in three of the evacuees.
"It seemed like the right thing to do, you know? If I had to leave my place, I'd appreciate it. I mean, we're all people."
St. Scholastica staff worked overtime to organize the accommodations and ensure everyone had a comfortable place to sleep. Volunteers bought toiletries and linens at Walmart and Target. By 9:30 p.m., all the UWS students had been paired up with a St. Scholastica host or chosen another space - some preferred to sleep on cots in the Somers Hall penthouse and suites.
For the evacuees, who were experiencing a stressful day filled with unknowns, the caring shown by St. Scholastica's students was reassuring.
"I feel really welcomed over here," said senior Ayesha Rajbhandari as she waited in line to be paired with a St. Scholastica roommate.
Harry Anderson, dean of students at UWS, was equally impressed.
"I can't thank CSS enough," he said. "There's no way to convey how much they've done in our time of need."
Chris Davila, director of St. Scholastica's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said he wasn't surprised at how responsive the College's students were in a pinch.
"I see that on a regular basis," he said. "They're advocates, they understand justice. It's what we expect, but it's great to see it at a time like this. They have it within themselves to be leaders, and opportunities like this bring that out."
At such times, he said, "we can learn so many things from them."
"You talk about Benedictine hospitality and you're seeing it live right here tonight," she said.
The evacuation in Superior was lifted the next morning. At UWS, technicians needed a few hours to re-start ventilation systems that had been shut down for fear of toxic smoke, to reopen buildings and to get food service up and running. After lunch on St. Scholastica's campus, the group made its way back to UWS.