Students Impacted By Hurricane Maria Reveal Why They Remained — And Left — Puerto Rico

Published on April 29, 2018, 6:27 pm
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In her free time, Lehman College junior Yarielid Torres, 20, likes to visit famous destinations in the borough like the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. She wanted to learn more about the area she currently calls home and attends school.

Torres began her first semester at Lehman this spring after transferring from Inter American University of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, which resulted in massive damage to schools across the island. She is one of the nearly 200 undergraduates who enrolled in CUNY colleges following Hurricane Maria.

Governor Andrew Cuomo called on CUNY and SUNY schools to allow students who were displaced because of hurricanes Maria and Irma to attend, paying the in-state tuition rate.

“The first weeks of school right after the hurricane were very hard and sad for everyone,” Torres said. “The campus had no light. We took classes in tents outside. (The) cafeteria and the library (were) closed.” Classrooms were “completely fallen apart” and the floors of some buildings had massive flooding.

The school did its best to provide for its students but she felt it was not the environment for her to continue her studies, Torres said. She researched colleges on the mainland and found Lehman. It had a diverse student body, was located in a metropolitan area and a strong psychology department. Torres, who is majoring in the subject, is staying with relatives in South Bronx.

Torres and other students discussed why they chose to remain in Puerto Rico after the hurricane to continue their studies and why they decided to leave.

“I feel like here in the states, you have much more opportunities — in terms of jobs, of the future in general,” Torres said. She planned to leave Puerto Rico to pursue hermaster’s degree but Hurricane Maria moved up her timetable.

Luz Vazquez Sanchez, 24, said she would not return to the island to continue work on a post-graduate degree in psychology at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras — even if the university could offer classes in her program. Her program within the psychology department closed after having less than ten students enrolled, she said.

The university encouraged her to take coursesin other subjects but it was not what Sanchez wanted since she would have to foot the bill. Transferring to another school did not work for her as well. Other programs required applicants take the Graduate Record Examination,or GRE as it is commonly known, for admission, which was not a requirement for Cayey’s program, she said.

Sanchez initially stayed with relatives in Virginia Beach, Virginia after the hurricane and followed media coverage of the recovery. 

“I saw the nasty way our president treated us, how people were left behind after a crisis,” she said of President Donald Trump’s October visit. “I saw our president throwing towel papers … as if we were nothing.”

The incident and the delayed rebuilding efforts sparked Sanchez’s interest in politics. She felt she could make more a future impact there instead of psychology.

Sanchez now lives in Washington, DC, where she works as a graphics designer at a political technology company.She’s studying for the GRE with plans to apply to graduate programs focusing on public policy.

Further down the road, she will return to Puerto Rico, work with the community and run for elected office. “I (need) to be the change I wanted to see,” Sanchez said.

For studentslike Andrea Sánchez Velázquez, 21, a senior at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, leaving the island “wasn’t an option.” She wanted to stay near her relatives. 

“I felt a responsibility for the well-being and restoration of my family and (island),” she said. “If that meant that I had to sacrifice a semester or extend the time of classes, I was willing to do it. Also, the money was an issue. Some of the opportunities outside (Puerto Rico) only cover you financially for a semester or a year, but not in all the college years.”

In her free time, Velázquez volunteers at a local hospital where she helps to distribute items like latex gloves, insulin and medical supplies to residents and doctors.

Miriam Morales Suarez, 23, a first-year graduate student studying psychology at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, said she might have made another choice if she lived in the rural areas of the island, which were the hardest hit by the hurricane.

Suarez, who is staying with friends in San Juan, worksas a research assistant in the university’s education department researching sexual violence prevention. She’s lucky to still have her job after the hurricane, which left many unemployed. Suarezwould likely not find a similar position in her field if she left, she said.

“I want to leave the island on my terms, which is applying to a Ph.D. program, getting a scholarship to finish my doctorate,” Suarez said.

The problems the island is experiencing is not just about slow recovery efforts, all of the students said.

“We are experiencing the hurricane and then on top of it, there are political issues that are making or life unstable,” Suarez said. “We are worried and preoccupied about what Maria did to us and now we have to worry about our environment, the economic and political issues that are already on top of Puerto Rico and our economy.”

The ups and downs of a slow recovery are emotionally draining. “Every day, there is something new on the news,” Suarez said. “People without (electricity).”

Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, in 2016. It resulted in the island being run by a fiscal control board. With a debt of already more than $73 billion, the financial damages caused by the hurricane, which tops more than $40 billion, made the situation even worse.

The lack of a solid infrastructure has contributed to an exodus on the island, which is “unprecedented,” according to an October 2017 report from The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY’s Hunter College. It estimated 17,000 to 33,000 college-age youth from 18 to 24-years-old will leave until 2019. 

Additionally, the island is expected to lose 14 percent of its population or 114,000 to 213,000 people.

As the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has given students a new outlook on life and how to adapt to the changing situations, it has also increased their resolve to continue their education and help to bringa better future for Puerto Rico. 

“There can be situations beyond one’s control, but it is important to be flexible and resilient,” Velázquez said.

“No situation no matter how hard it may be should stop you from becoming and achieving all that you have desired your whole life,” Torres said.

Jonas Bronck is the pseudonym under which we publish and manage the content and operations of The Bronx Daily.™ | - the largest daily news publication in the borough of "the" Bronx with over 1.5 million annual readers. Publishing under the alias Jonas Bronck is our humble way of paying tribute to the person, whose name lives on in the name of our beloved borough.