Displaced Puerto Rican students settle in to temporary home
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) — Three University of Puerto Rico students spending their spring semester at Wesleyan University said they have settled in to their temporary home in Middletown.
Like dozens of their fellow students, they made the difficult decision last year to leave behind families still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in order to keep up with their studies.
Wesleyan is one of several institutions in the state to pitch in and give Puerto Rican students a stable setting so they don’t fall behind.
Eriam Manautou Martinez, 22, Vianca Perez Betancourt, 18, and Ana Rodriguez Santory, 20, said the semester away from home has been a challenge, but they’re welcomed by everyone they meet.
“I’m a very family-oriented type of girl so it was really hard. It was really hard to leave them behind knowing that not everything is at full capacity at home,” Manautou said. “The other day there was a blackout in Puerto Rico and everybody on the north part of the island was dark. It’s hard knowing that they’re going through stuff back home, but I know they prefer that we’re here and we’re OK and we’re studying at a great university.”
Back home, the school year was already compressed because of a strike earlier in 2017. Hurricane Maria in September only compounded the uncertainty they felt about what their studies would be like.
″(Enrolling in the program) gave us the type of normalcy we needed after the hurricane,” Manautou said.
In an interview with The Hartford Courant recently, the three students said their university is still rebuilding. Power outages are still common and educational resources there can’t compare yet with what’s available outside the hurricane zone.
All three are expecting to return to Puerto Rico after the semester ends in May.
Tulane University in New Orleans was the first to take in students from Puerto Rico, just as other universities did for Tulane after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Hundreds of colleges came forward saying we can take in your students,” said Jeff Schiffman, director of admissions at Tulane. “It was a great opportunity to pay it forward.”
He said Tulane officials contacted the University of Puerto Rico after the hurricane to offer to take in some students. Other colleges and universities around the country began to ask Tulane how they could help too, Schiffman said.
″(Before Katrina) it had never happened before where an institution simply could not open for a whole semester,” he said. “Tulane had the plan in place, and it kind of evolved as it went. It allows students to keep their education on track and refocus on their academics.”
Tulane currently has 16 students from Puerto Rico and one from St. Martin enrolled for the spring semester, Schiffman said.
Other colleges in Connecticut have also taken in UPR students, including Central Connecticut State University which admitted about 20 students in November.
Perez, a theater student, said she had already planned to transfer to a mainland U.S. university at some point. She got her chance earlier than expected, she said.
“We’re going to make the most out of it. We won’t let this opportunity go away or not take advantage of it,” Perez said. “We’re just so thankful. It’s a great place.”
She’s taking theater courses this semester and is appearing in plays. Back home, people were floored to learn she’d be going to the same university as “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has roots in Puerto Rico.
“I was able to get all the theater courses that I wanted, and then get into plays, and I’ve met a lot of people in the theater community,” Perez said. “I’m very lucky to be here. All of us are very lucky to be here. It is a good thing out of all the bad things, so something a bit positive.”
Jennifer Curran, director of continuing studies at Wesleyan, said it was a challenge to coordinate the students’ admissions. Trying to call or email officials at a university with no power and limited staff was a logistical nightmare, she said.
“I was so happy that Wesleyan had made this a priority and that we were able to pull something together,” Curran said. “It was really about everybody saying let’s make this work.”
UPR students pay tuition to their school back home, while their host colleges provide their room and board at no extra cost. Curran said Wesleyan provided on-campus housing, meal plans and other less formal assistance to get the three students settled in.
Manautou and Rodriguez restarted some of their classes in the weeks following Hurricane Maria. Students and staff were determined to make the best of their return to school but the challenges were severe, they said.
“I went to a classroom after the hurricane and there was this big puddle in the middle of the classroom. There was the professor (on one side) and the rest of us were in the other part,” she said. “In another classroom I was studying and the drips kept coming down on my books.”
In another classroom where, other students recorded video that showed people scrambling to get out of the way of a collapsing ceiling, Rodriguez said.
It’s a relief “to come from that, to come from people that put in a lot of effort just by being there at 98 degrees temperature in a closed classroom,” she said.
She said leaving her family behind when they were still in the early stages of hurricane recovery was a heartbreaking decision. But her mother encouraged her to go so she could focus on school.
“To come from months of waking up in the morning and looking for food being the thing that you’re going to do that day, figure out how to feed your family because there’s no light, there’s no gas, there’s no ATM,” Rodriguez said. “To come from that and just swipe in a little card at Usdan (University Center), the first days I would eat so much I couldn’t move afterwards.”
The three students said they have friends who were admitted for this semester to Tulane, New York University, Florida State University, Brown University and Boston College.
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com