Puerto Rican Students Affected by Hurricane Maria Spend Semester at Pomona

Puerto Rico, Visiting Students, Hurricane Maria

A day before the full force of Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last fall, college student Wesley Sanchez grew alarmed as his hometown of Orocovis, some 47 miles from the capital of San Juan, lost electrical power, cell phone and internet service.

“I knew things were going to be bad if we lost power the day before,” says the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez senior. He is one of two students attending Pomona this spring as part of the College’s visiting semester program created to support Puerto Rican college students affected by Hurricane Maria. The program covers their tuition, meal plan and provides a stipend for travel.

The aftermath of Maria’s 150 mph-winds was devastating for communities such as Orocovis, located in the island’s central mountain range. Houses flooded and water would come out of the light fixtures and electrical outlets. Main roads were blocked by debris, buildings collapsed and no fuel was available for weeks. Street lights, too, were no match for the Category 5 storm.

The day after the hurricane, Sanchez and his mother set out on a trek to check on their home.  Normally a 20-minute car ride from his aunt’s house – where he and 13 members of his family were taking shelter – the trip became a two-hour walk due to the debris, fallen pine trees, mud and dangerous road conditions. Even though he could see the magnitude of the devastation, he still had hope his family’s house was still standing.

“Our roof blew away and the walls fell,” says Sanchez. “I used humor to lighten the reaction of seeing our home destroyed. I didn’t want to cry in front of my mother and grandmother.”

The next house over, which belongs to Sanchez’s grandmother, was able to withstand the hurricane. “It sustained flood damage, but after clearing a lot of debris, we were able to move back into her house,” he says.

Yarelis Marcial, from the city of Isabela, was more fortunate.  A third-year student at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez and visiting student at Pomona this spring, Marcial notes that her home didn’t sustain significant damage though she faced other difficulties.

Marcial’s family in Florida was unable to reach her for several days after the hurricane hit. The news coverage in the U.S. showed terrible wreckage in the island, and Marcial’s father grew increasingly worried.

“When I was finally able to receive calls on my cell phone, my dad was concerned because I hadn’t called before,” says Marcial. “I had to tell him we were OK given the circumstances but that communication was challenging because of the lack of reliable cell phone coverage and that internet Wi-Fi service was very scarce.”

More than four months after Hurricane Maria plowed through parts of Puerto Rico, electricity has not yet been restored in the heart of the island. Only 65 percent of the U.S. territory has electricity, and service probably won’t be entirely restored before May.

Still, as rebuilding efforts continued, Sanchez and Marcial restarted their fall semester in Mayagüez in late October. “We had a late start to classes because of students protesting tuition hikes,” says Sanchez. “The hurricane further delayed the end of the semester.”

Even though both Sanchez and Marcial attended the same campus and both majored in linguistics, they had never met. Their department director, Professor of English Leonardo Flores, introduced them a few weeks before they traveled to California for Pomona’s program.

“I was also accepted to a visiting program at Penn State and my family expected me to go there since I have relatives in Pennsylvania,” says Sanchez. “But, when I saw that I could take courses in my major concentration, I was sold on Pomona.” This was essential to Sanchez since he is graduating this summer.

Marcial’s decision to come to Pomona was also swayed by the opportunity to continue her studies, and location was an added bonus. “It’s the first time I’ve traveled outside of Puerto Rico by myself, and my first time visiting California,” she says.

The first weeks at Pomona have been busy for Sanchez and Marcial. Not only are they learning to navigate a new campus, new residence halls and registration for classes, but they are also both finishing up their finals from their delayed fall semester at University of Puerto Rico.

“I still have physics and biology finals in the next few weeks,” says Marcial, who is looking forward to closing up her fall semester. She is also signed up for an online class at University of Puerto Rico which she will take concurrently with her four courses at Pomona. She is shifting from a linguistics major to chemistry, so she estimates she’ll have about three more years of college once she returns to Puerto Rico.

Sanchez, meanwhile, is looking forward to finding research opportunities in linguistics during his time in California. “I already applied for a doctorate program but I would like to get more research experience under my belt and have a backup plan.”

He adds, “I haven’t been able to visit L.A. yet, since I was finishing up my tests, but now that I’m done, I will definitely do more exploring.”

“Oh! I used Uber for the first time,” adds Marcial about one of her firsts while in California. “Well, I actually used Lyft because the Uber driver wasn’t able to find me,” she says jokingly.