In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, several universities in the United States offered Puerto Rican students an opportunity to stay in school. Among them, The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington offered to accept up to 40 students as visiting students for the spring 2018 semester and waive their tuition and standard student fees.
The Category 4 storm killed dozens and left a path of destruction. Most of the U.S. territory’s 3.4 million residents lost running water, and the electrical grid and communication systems were knocked out. Seven months later, thousands are still without power, and reconstruction continues for the foreseeable future.
Some of Puerto Rico’s colleges opened on a limited basis two months after the hurricane, and the last of them reopened in April, but they are still not completely operational. The system already was adjusting to an 18.8 percent cut in appropriations even before the storm arrived.
Because the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, its residents are U.S. citizens who are free to come to the United States without visas or other documents. More than 135,000 Puerto Rican residents left the island for the U.S. mainland in the six months following the hurricane, according to a recent report by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. Among them were many university students.
“We ended up with seven students from the University of Puerto Rico,” said Lynn Mayer, vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at CUA. “Not all the schools were going to be able to reopen and get faculty back, and even those that could were not sure what spring would look like.”
According to Mayer, the island’s schools were without internet accessibility, so it was hard to spread word of the offer, but they were able to establish contact with the University of Puerto Rico. “They were very helpful and concerned about the welfare of their students,” Mayer said.
“The offer from Catholic University was made for the spring semester so that students did not disrupt their academic path by losing a whole year of school,” Mayer said. “The experience they had in the fall was highly traumatic, so we were trying to not only be helpful in academics but about the other aspects of their experiences, such as their loss of communities and food shortages and having gone without power for weeks or months.” She explained that the students are given one-on-one orientation and offered services to help them adjust.
Chris Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the university, said the main goal is to allow the students to stay on the path to graduate. “Our intent was to assist students from Puerto Rico who were facing a disruption in studies by offering a one-semester visiting student program while their home institutions recovered,” he said. “We were able to place them into classes that were already scheduled to run, so we simply waived tuition for them.”
Some students were able to stay with relatives living nearby while others moved onto campus and are charged standard room and board rates.
Desiree Cordero Rios, a freshman from Puerto Rico studying marketing, accepted the offer. She had just started at the University of Puerto Rico in August, the month before the storm hit.
Cordero and her older sister helped their parents cover windows on their farm home before the hurricane made land, but still water came through. “We were filling buckets and emptying them into the shower,” Cordero explained. “The storm kept changing directions so that different sides of the house would start leaking.”
They lost all power. “We had no communication, so we did not know what was happening out there,” she said. “It was scary.”
Although their sturdy, cement house remained standing through the 28-hour onslaught, the farm suffered crop damage and downed trees, and some of the animals died. It was several months before power returned.
Storm damage was extensive at the Aguadilla City campus where Cordero was enrolled, and classes were cancelled. After a month passed, she had moved to Maryland to live with an aunt when she saw the offer from CUA.
A Catholic opportunity
“This is my first experience at a Catholic school,” she said. “All my family is Catholic. It is a huge opportunity for me. Everyone has been friendly, and it feels like a Catholic environment here.”
Cordero often attends Sunday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “I love being there and looking up at … the dome. Sometimes I go to the English Mass, but there is a Spanish one, too.”
Although Cordero said she has adjusted well, she does miss her family and homeland and was able to go home for a week during spring break in March. She is enjoying her time at CUA and plans on applying for admittances as a regular student in the fall.
Hector Bencosmen is a junior in software engineering who arrived in January to participate in the visiting student program. After the hurricane hit, he and his mother and younger sister struggled to find food. Without electricity to cook, they relied mostly on canned goods and often had only one meal a day.
Since his father lives in New York, Bencosmen was able to go stay with him, but his mother and sister chose to stay in Puerto Rico. “There is a lot more opportunity here,” he said.
Bencosmen said that he enjoys the atmosphere of a Catholic university. “I have flashbacks of my Catholic high school, things like celebrating Ash Wednesday, having the Masses on campus and seeing the nuns walking around. It’s nice knowing people are into theology and practicing it.”
Although Bencosmen said he misses his family in Puerto Rico, he hopes to continue his studies here and ultimately settle on the mainland.
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.