Students reflect on study abroad experiences following 2011 tornado

Ashanka Kumari

At The University of Alabama, April 27, 2011 marked more than the date of a natural disaster. It became the last day of school, the end of the spring semester and for two UA students, the start of a year-long adventure.

Bentley Brooks Rodrigue, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, and David Vogt, a senior majoring in German and history, left the devastation in Tuscaloosa, went home and prepared to spend the 2011-2012 school year overseas.

Vogt, who spent a year in Erfurt, Germany, left Tuscaloosa on April 28, 2011 and flew to his home in Phoenix, Ariz. a few days later.

“The day after the tornado, I went on a short camping trip to the Gulf Coast, so I was able to escape the immediate chaos of not having power or hot water,” Vogt said. “However, it did feel strange since I had known that, when I left Tuscaloosa, I would not see it again for a long time and for it to end on such a powerful and cliff-hanging note was indeed odd.”

Rodrigue, who spent the next year in London, England, went to her home in Cincinnati, Ohio immediately following the tornado and said she felt horrible for leaving at a time when Tuscaloosa needed help.

“I hated that I wasn’t there to help out,” Rodrigue said. “I came back a few weeks later to get my things and get ready to go abroad and it was heart-breaking to see the aftermath of the tornado. So many people had come together to help out during the disaster, but the city had been torn apart in some areas.”

Both students were part of programs that did not include other UA students, went abroad knowing no one and had almost no one to relate their tornado experiences with.

“Since there are almost no tornados in Germany, no one really understood what Tuscaloosa had gone through,” Vogt said. “I told my story and showed them pictures and they were naturally shocked, but it didn’t go much further than that. While in Germany, I received a copy of The Crimson White commemorating the six-month anniversary of the tornado and it was just surreal.”

For Rodrigue, returning to Tuscaloosa after a year was exciting because she had missed her friends, many who she had never had a chance to say goodbye to following the storm.

“As we drove into town and down 15th street, all the memories came flooding back, but it was so uplifting to see how the city has risen from such a sad time,” she said. “The campus had grown and the city is slowly putting itself back together. I know these things take time, but I’m already so impressed with the progress.”

Although the benefits of studying abroad are endless, Vogt said coming back to the United States and Tuscaloosa can be really tough.

“I came back and was completely out of the loop; it was like I was a ghost,” he said. “One of the hardest things for me was realizing that I had been out of my friends’ lives for a whole year, missing out on new friends they had made, inside jokes, dramas, memories and experiences. I find I’m a completely different person than when I left and Tuscaloosa is a completely different city as well, so I think it’s rather fitting.”