Puerto Rican Students Find Refuge Across Campuses-The Orlando Times
BY JALESSA CASTILLO, TIMES STAFF WRITER
CENTRAL FLORIDA - Puerto Rican students lost power, their homes, and hope after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated their Caribbean home in late 2017. In a turn of events, Valencia College opened its classrooms and provided refuge for these displaced scholars.
Due to the critical damage, that left nearly 90 percent of the island without power, many Universities and Colleges in Puerto Rico were unable to resume classes. Students were at a loss until they heard about the help being offered in Central Florida at the direction of Sen. Rick Scott, including Valencia College’s special assistance for Puerto Rican students affected by the hurricanes.
“Students that are coming from Puerto Rico are not going to be here by themselves. Councilors are ready and prepared to help them during the process,” said Juan Villegas, Adj. Professor at Valencia College Osceola Campus.
Valencia’s main form of assistance is considering these students as in-state residents for tuition purposes. A typical student would have to prove that they have lived in Florida for at least 12 months before starting classes. These displaced students will pay about $103 per credit hour instead of over $300, which is the price of out-of-state tuition. In the end they will save more than 66% on their tuition.
UCF, Rollins College, and Seminole State are offering in-state tuition as well. UF is giving free online courses for 1000 displaced non-degree seeking students applying from select schools; and FSU Law School is helping students who transfer to find housing.
“We are really glad that we can be of assistance to these students,” said Linda Herlocker, Admissions & Records for Valencia College. “If they are feeling stuck or have questions there is always someone around who can help.”
441 students have declared to be evacuees, 174 of those are currently registered this semester, spring 2018, with the rest joining next semester. That number does not include students in the continuing education department taking non-credit programs, including ESOL classes for those who don’t speak fluent English.
“It all started after the hurricane,” said Claudia Sofia Baez Sola, 18, a current Valencia transfer student from Puerto Rico. “My parents always said the best investment is an education and when we heard [what] Valencia College was offering we knew we had to do it.”
Sola was only one week into her freshmen year at the University of Puerto Rico when the hurricanes hit. She was rushed to Florida leaving little time for packing and goodbyes.
“This experience has been a challenge and sacrifice. My parents are still there, and they don’t have electricity or portable water, it’s extremely unstable,” she said. “It’s very hard for me because I know they are making huge sacrifices, my family is suffering. Now that I am here I can’t turn my back on them because Puerto Rico needs help; the work is not done.”
She was chosen to attend the State of the Union Address as a guest.
“It was unbelievable, and I was grateful for being chosen,” she said. “I would have never imagined having such an important opportunity and serving as a voice for all the Puerto Ricans that came here after Hurricane Maria and those on the island.”
Sola plans on starting support groups for the displaced Puerto Rican students at Valencia.
Valencia has made special previsions for those who were attending Universities or Colleges in Puerto Rico. First, they worked with students whose proof of high school graduation was destroyed, so they can be eligible for financial aid. Secondly, most were allowed to transfer their college credits after presenting an unofficial transcript.
“My mother, sister, and I moved in with my brother and his girlfriend but then they separated so we had to move to another apartment, but we didn’t have the money because we weren’t expecting to have to move again,” said Richelle Cruz, 18, a current Valencia student from Puerto Rico. “I applied and registered for three classes at Valencia while I was still finishing online classes from Puerto Rico. I was taking eight classes, and I started working three weeks after I arrived here. I didn’t have a car and I knew English, but it was hard for me to express myself completely.”
She had been attending Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico and is determined to get her degree in Forensic Psychology.
“We had to leave because our house was damaged,” she shared. “All the furniture had mold and we had to throw it all away. We didn’t have any water for two months, so we had to wait in lines for more than 6 hours.”
Richelle keeps a positive outlook on her current situation and her future.
“I’ve learned that I can push myself. Even though I had all this stuff to do I still finished my classes from Puerto Rico with A’s, I continued working and I’m doing well at Valencia,” she said.
She notes her family and faith as motivating factors, and encourages changes to be made to help more people in Puerto Rico.
For a few months after the hurricanes Valencia campuses provided service centers that gave these students basic enrollment and application information. Each campus is assigned contacts for anyone with questions.
“It has been an honor to help them get enrolled at the college,” said Magdamar Hernandez, person of contact for students coming from Puerto Rico, Osceola Campus. “I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I have family going through relocation so I can understand the struggle that they may be facing and I do the most I can to help.”
Fellow students and clubs on campus are also trying to welcome these students.
“I’m from Puerto Rico and I have family over there,” said Vick Ramirez, VP of Latin Fire, a Hispanic club on Valencia’s West Campus. “The people who came here to take shelter, if they have any problems they can reach out to us because we will be happy to help.”
Despite the tragedy and every day struggles that these students face they are determined to succeed.
“We are not alone,” said Sola. “We, as Puerto Ricans, are resilient, we are strong, and we are tough. We may be starting from scratch, but we can do it!”