While Hurricane Maria undoubtedly took away many things from people on the island of Puerto Rico, it has given one UCF student a shift in focus, a new sense of independence and opportunities to create a greater future.
Sophomore criminal justice major Yolimar Garayalde Figueroa, from northern Puerto Rico’s city of Guaynabo, had to enter a new stage of adulthood after the storm forced her to uproot her entire life to continue her education at UCF.
“It’s one thing being home having your car, having a job, going to college and saying, ‘I want to be independent. I want to live my own,’ ” says Figueroa. “But, it’s a totally different thing when you’re forced to leave and actually have to do things on your own because no one else is going to do it for you.”
Although making it through her first semester at UCF has been full of challenges, the chance to grow and create a new life is one Figueroa says she wouldn’t trade for anything.
Surviving the Storm
Figueroa’s home in Puerto Rico is near the peak of a mountain, but her parents chose to stay during the storm because her grandparents, who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, refused to leave. They boarded up the windows, gathered food and supplies, and hoped for the best.
“The day the hurricane came it was supposed to come into the island at 8 a.m., but by 3 a.m. we already felt it.”
“The day the hurricane came it was supposed to come into the island at 8 a.m., but by 3 a.m. we already felt it. Things were already flying away,” says Figueroa. “I think the winds reached 175 mph.”
As Maria tore through the island, it caused a tree to fall on Figueroa’s home and create a crack in the ceiling, allowing water to drip onto her bed. Not long after, all the windows shattered and the home flooded, the water reaching up to Figueroa’s knees. Baby pictures, high school memorabilia, clothing and awards were among the items destroyed as a result.
When the storm finally passed, the concrete walls and doors were all that remained of her home. Maria’s force was strong enough to rip the terrace and a storage unit with food, supplies and water from the property. What was once a lush landscape was now a barren terrain littered with debris.
For the following months, the family, along with millions of others, struggled to find food, water and gas with the only power coming from generators.
A Life-Changing Conversation
A couple weeks after the storm, Figueroa started working at a bakery when she had a conversation with a parole officer that would change everything. Figueroa always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, but her interest in climatology led her to study geography at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus, located in San Juan. That conversation made her rethink her major when she arrived at UCF.
“I honestly want to go back home because [the accused need a] super expensive lawyer to avoid jail time, so I want to create a change.”
Figueroa says she was troubled by the justice system’s lack of understanding for law offenders, considering the natural disaster that everyone on the island had just endured. She now wants to complete her degree in criminal justice and although she isn’t entirely sure which field of law she wants to work in, she is considering representing people facing criminal charges.
“I want to serve in Orlando for a couple of years, but I honestly want to go back home because [the accused need a] super expensive lawyer to avoid jail time, so I want to create a change back home.”
Transitioning to UCF
Figueroa’s journey to UCF started with a Google search: “Universities helping students displaced by Hurricane Maria.” To get access to Wi-Fi she had to drive to the middle of a highway and park, or visit a mall food court, where the connection was strongest.
Results showed schools in Florida were the quickest to take action. She considered FIU in Miami, but knew it would be too expensive to live in the area. Ultimately, UCF was the best option for her because of the in-state tuition offered for students displaced by the hurricane and the affordability of living in Orlando on her own since her parents couldn’t come with her.
“I was so scared to call my parents crying because I didn’t want them to feel worse than what they were feeling because they weren’t able to come with me.”
She completed her application in November and was accepted in early December. She dedicated most of her time to preparing for her move. She arrived in Orlando a few weeks later on Jan. 3 with a friend who helped her get settled. At first Figueroa was excited for the move, but when her friend left, homesickness began to sink in.
“I was so scared to call my parents crying because I didn’t want them to feel worse than what they were feeling because they weren’t able to come with me,” she says.
To overcome her loneliness, she forced herself to get out of her room and hang out with her roommates more. She says the biggest help was attending workshops through UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services that focused on providing support for students from islands affected by the hurricane.
“Having a Puerto Rican doctor there that is willing to completely assist you in all your needs was great,” says Figueroa. “It’s a completely different thing if you can express yourself to a person that speaks your main language and completely understands the things you went through because they have family back home.”
Growing Into Her Own
While she still has many years to go before becoming a lawyer, Figueroa is creating a change for herself in Orlando. She says back home she only focused on school and work, only making five or six friends as a result in her three years at her previous university.
“Here, I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone to the extreme. I’ve met so many amazing people and I’ve made a bunch of good connections.”
“Here, I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone to the extreme,” Figueroa says. “I’ve met so many amazing people and I’ve made a bunch of good connections.”
She’s maintained contact with academic advisors, as well as financial aid and housing staff members to ensure she’s on the right track. While she was never involved on campus previously, she’s joined the Puerto Rican Student Association, where she’s made many friends and has gained a support system.
This summer, she’ll be taking UCF Online courses while she visits her parents back home on the island.
“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to leave because I’ve adapted to Orlando, but there’s another part of me that wants to be back home with my parents and dog – and getting free food,” she says with a laugh.
She’ll be back on campus in the fall, fulfilling her first leadership position as the PRSA’s outreach coordinator and helping other students who’ve been impacted by Hurricane Maria. In two years, Figueroa’s parents plan to move to Miami and she’ll have earned a degree from UCF and plans to be attending law school.
“Maria took away many things from me, but she also gave me many good things that I didn’t expect to have,” Figueroa says.