How Puerto Rican Students have Adjusted at UCF 6 months after Hurricane Maria

Augusto Ortiz sat in the stifling heat. Relieved his home escaped significant damage, but surrounded by a neighborhood scattered with debris, Ortiz had spent the first two weeks following Hurricane Maria’s descent helping friends, neighbors and family members with cleanup. Hampered by structural damage, classes at his university would be canceled for months.

As he listened to the news on a battery-operated radio, he heard Gov. Rick Scott announce Florida’s state universities would extend in-state tuition rates for Puerto Rican students for the spring 2018 semester. Days later, he was on a plane bound to Orlando to stay with a friend. One of his first missions: find a computer and submit an application to UCF.

Six months later, UCF is the new home for more than 200 students like Ortiz who fled their ravaged homeland, making the difficult decision to leave their families during a time of hardship for the opportunity to continue their education. UCF made it a priority to ease their transition, holding a welcome reception, setting up an informational website, and offering a slew of specialized services such as peer mentoring, free English classes, counseling, and assistance with housing and scholarships.

“We wanted to make it as seamless and welcoming as possible,” said associate vice-president and dean of students, Adrienne Frame. “Our goal was to get them here without disrupting their education.”

UCF was the first of Florida’s universities to extend the in-state tuition rate beyond that initial semester and through spring 2019, providing students with a full academic year of assistance. It was a unanimous decision for the UCF Board of Trustees, which adjusted their January agenda to address the item two months earlier than scheduled after hearing that Puerto Rican students were anxious to make future plans.

An advocate for these new students is Jose Rivera, a junior economics major who founded UCF’s Puerto Rican Student Association that formed just a short time before the storm hit. After Hurricane Maria, Rivera established a relief committee within the association and held an open forum designed to better identify student needs and effectively communicate with university administrators. He connected regularly with Cyndia Muniz, assistant director in UCF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and sociology professor Fernando Rivera, who he says are “outstanding leaders and mentors” to the group.

“Just like any other student going away to college, it’s challenging,” said Muniz. “They miss their families and they are in a new place. They have already had a traumatic experience and this adds to it. This is something that was unexpected for everybody.”

Rivera says the newly enrolled students simply came here with expectations of getting off the island and were looking for stability.  He says students are still adjusting and uncertain about their long-term plans. They are watching Puerto Rico’s economy closely, and for many, whether they will return will depend on how recovery goes.

For Ortiz, a pre-med student and local hospital volunteer, Hurricane Maria hit just after he completed the first week of the fall semester at the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon. His grandparents just got power a few weeks ago and tell him the service is sporadic. Ortiz says he is discouraged about conditions in Puerto Rico. His parents, who he speaks with daily, say that while there have been improvements, the pace is not fast enough. They are thinking more strongly about leaving.

“It really makes me sad,” said Ortiz. “I really love Puerto Rico and it’s the last place I wanted to suffer. I’m hoping it will recover soon, and one day in the not too distant future, I may come back.  But every day it seems like it will be less of an option for me to actually return.”

Now studying biomedical sciences, Ortiz plans to apply to UCF’s medical school.

Gabriel Lopez was also a student at the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon when Hurricane Maria hit. Lopez, a junior interested in finance, found out through social media that UCF was offering in-state tuition and applied immediately. Today he shares a Casselberry apartment with a fellow Puerto Rican student who attends Valencia College. His biggest challenge, he says, is transportation. Without a car, Lopez often asks friends for rides, and frequently relies on Uber or Lyft to get around town and to class.

Lopez says he’s maximizing his time at UCF by joining the Young Investors Club, Prospanica, spending time at All Knight Study, and enjoying the Recreation and Wellness Center. “It’s a new world for me,” says Lopez. “It’s been a great experience. UCF has made us feel like we’re at home.”

Lopez has already made up his mind about future plans. “The hurricane didn’t change my perspective, it just made me have to leave and gave me the opportunity to experience new cultures,” he says.  “My goal is to come back to Puerto Rico; there is nothing like Puerto Rico – the people, the culture, the happiness, the beaches, the nature. I want to give back to my community.”

Now also studying at UCF is Alejandro Chardon, who was living in Ponce and studying microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez when the storm left his family without water and power for weeks. He scouted out one of the few places in town with a Wi-Fi connection, a small boutique store, and applied to UCF online.

During his time in Puerto Rico, Chardon had co-founded a bicycle co-op and gained an interest in the business world. Arriving at UCF, he decided to combine his passions for health and business and pursue UCF’s health services administration degree. He and his sister were both accepted to UCF and made the transition together. Chardon testified in front of the SGA, and later, the Board of Trustees, to request the extension of the tuition waiver.

“I’m taking advantage of all the opportunities in the palm of my hand,” said Chardon who is looking for an internship, becoming involved in student organizations, attending job fairs, and playing sports. “In the long run I hope to get the degree, to fill my professional network, and to hopefully climb to success. I believe that right here, I have a good basic platform for that. And I’m excited for that.”

Rivera says the students appreciate the welcome they have received. “It has been such a beautiful and sincere, from the heart, desire to help the students,” he said. “Everyone has mobilized in providing support. It has been really impressive.”

“UCF has taken the lead in terms of how to handle a situation like this and give students a chance to actually progress in their lives,” said Rivera. “For me, I couldn’t be more proud to be a Knight.”

Applications from Puerto Rican students continue to come to UCF at higher rates: 343 applicants have been received thus far for the upcoming summer and fall semesters, more than four times the number received at the same time last year. “This isn’t a short term thing,” said Rivera. “We will be feeling the effects for a long time and we need to be prepared for that.”

For more information on UCF’s educational relief for Puerto Rican students, visit this website or call 1-855-903-8576.