Puerto Rican transfer students hit twice by natural catastrophe

When Gustavo Rivera, 22, transferred from the University of Puerto Rico to the University of Central Florida in spring 2018 after Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged his homeland, the shockwave was in some ways as strong as any natural disaster.

He left a campus he’d grown to love, which took a toll on his friendships and resulted in a breakup with his girlfriend back home.

“Just realizing that nothing was gonna be the same and I had to basically start all over socially, just kinda threw me in a pit of depression,” he said. “That was my adjustment, really — just giving up the bad and looking forward to the future. [It] was a waste of time, since I’m back on the island.”

After Maria hit on September 20, 2017, almost 100 universities across the United States offered some form of in-state tuition. These included five state and six community colleges in Florida, contributing to an exodus of nearly 160,000 people from the island. 

Like thousands of students across the United States, Puerto Ricans have been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to leave their universities and return home. But there, they have been greeted by tropical storms, powerful earthquakes and chronic unrest. Like Gustavo, who left Orlando at his parents’ request when cases were still skyrocketing, many of them have been tossed back into the “pit of depression” they experienced after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Puerto Ricans are going through multiple things at the same time, that maybe other populations or other communities have not dealt with — at least yet,” said Dr. Carissa Caban-Aleman, director of Behavioral Health Services at Florida International University’s Student Health Center. She is also a board member of Crear Con Salud, Inc., a non-profit disaster psychiatry response effort created by Puerto Rican psychiatrists living in the U.S.

In addition to the pandemic and climate disasters like Hurricane Maria —and this year’s series of earthquakes and tropical storms — Dr. Caban-Aleman also cites “systemic, complex, sociopolitical factors” that continue to affect her island. These include a lack of fiscal control and local corruption.

“I do think that eventually… maybe Puerto Rico’s situation won’t be as unique as what it is right now,” said Dr. Caban Aleman. “Hopefully we learn from what Puerto Ricans have struggled with.”

Much of the island’s sociopolitical climate affects young people directly. The last four years have seen the closing of hundreds of public schools, thanks to the island’s financial crisis. And 2017 included a massive, two-month strike by University of Puerto Rico students from across the island. This was in response to the government’s $450 million budget slash to Puerto Rico’s public university system.

“I feel that it’s been extremely draining, especially in those first three months [of quarantine], where we were all still in a limbo of ‘what’s going to happen,’” said Diana Del Toro, a 21-year-old hospitality major who transferred to FIU from UPR’s Carolina precinct as a result of Hurricane Maria. “It definitely showed on my face how much stress I was under.”

Although things have improved, Diana cites the lack of social life and the monotony of online classes as her biggest stress factors. Thankfully, she has taken the last couple of months to grow closer to her mother, since they are now living under the same roof again.

“She’s helped me through a lot in my life and even though it’s been really hard being back home and not seeing my friends, I feel like talking to my mom about all these problems really helped a lot,” she said.

For Gustavo, who once again finds himself in a long-distance relationship, the adjustment has also been difficult, but experience has helped.

In his second semester at UCF (where he began majoring in psychology), he failed most of his courses, which put him on academic probation. When an additional failed summer class got him “booted out” in 2019, he finished his gen-ed at Valencia Community College. He then transferred to FIU’s online psychology program when the pandemic hit, because remote courses for his major remained limited at UCF. He is now staying at his father’s apartment in Puerto Rico. 

“It feels like I’m at a drawbridge that has just opened up and will not be coming back down any time soon,” he says. “It is something that, while completely out of my control, has made me pretty sad and hopeless, and my own personal future looks more and more uncertain the longer this goes on.”

But while being stuck at home comes with downsides, others are coping with being away from it. 

Juan Aquino, 23, is majoring in arts and letters and modern languages at UCF. He also transferred from the UPR in Rio Piedras. Currently, he is taking remote classes from an apartment he shares with his girlfriend in Orlando. This summer, he planned to visit the island but ended up staying in Orlando to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

“I haven’t seen my parents in almost a year now,” he said. “I feel guilty that I’m not there to comfort the people that I love and that I won’t get to be there until whenever this ends.”

Juan laments not being present for the death of his dog last September. He also missed his grandmother’s passing last year.

“You miss those big moments, and that kinda adds to the guilt, like… ‘Look at all these important moments in my family’s life that I’m just not there for,’” he explained. “I didn’t expect to not be seeing [my family] again until 2021.”

Juan, Diana and Gustavo all agree and if there’s one good thing to come out of being victims of two natural disasters in their college careers, it’s the resilience that comes with it.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger mentally because of the terrible situations that we’re living in right now and that we lived in back in 2017,” said Diana.

Gustavo added: “I do feel it is the same circumstance of being forced out of the life that I had just finished making for myself,” he said. “But having gone through that once, I am holding on harder to what I left behind.”

Ursula Muñoz Schaefer is a contributor for Caplin News and the Opinion Director at PantherNOW. When she’s not writing or stressing out about world affairs, she enjoys watching movies. She is a broadcast Television major at FIU.