When Serafin Mendez heard that thousands of students from the University of Puerto Rico wouldn’t be able to continue their education because of hurricane-related damage to the campus, he decided to do something.
“We realized that the university needed to be part of the efforts to help some of these students — not because we are Puerto Ricans, but because it’s the right thing to do,” said Mendez, who’s a communications professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
He said about 25 students have expressed interest in transferring to CCSU, and 13 of those are seriously considering attending.
Both Mendez and the university’s president, Zulma Toro, have ties to the island and its university.
“It’s emotionally very difficult for everyone, because it’s like, a nightmare,” Toro said. “You went to bed having everything, you wake up with not even the basic services that you need.”
Both their own families are safe, and some of their relatives have moved to the mainland. But they wanted to help students from the island, so they came up with a plan.
Students will have an opportunity to earn nine credits during an eight-week semester, which is expected to end on December 20. After that, they’ll also be able to take online classes to earn an additional six credits. If they complete all of that, they wouldn’t lose any credits for the semester.
Toro pointed out that offering a specialized curriculum is especially important for students who are expecting to go to graduate school next year.
“A lot of students who pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Puerto Rico come to the mainland for graduate studies,” Toro said. “They see that if they don’t do that in a timely manner, their possibilities in the long term will be affected.”
The president expressed confidence that the shortened semester would be rigorous enough.
“There are a lot of prestigious universities that offer this same format,” she said.
Pulling off an ad-hoc program like this involves some complicated logistics. CCSU has to verify the students’ academic standing, review their credits, discuss housing and provide it if needed, and offer counseling services for social and emotional support.
Mendez said the arriving students will be paired with members of the university’s Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Center to help them adjust to life in the Northeast.
Connecticut’s Board of Regents recently approved in-state tuition rates for students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands affected by recent hurricanes. It’s unclear how many students are expected to take advantage of the offer statewide. In-state tuition would not be available to students from the islands who are already enrolled in a state college.
Other colleges have also offered help displaced students. Rhode Island’s Brown University is offering free tuition to up to 50 University of Puerto Rico students who apply and are accepted.
All 11 colleges that comprise the University of Puerto Rico closed just days after the hurricane hit, displacing close to 60,000 students. Many of the campuses are expected to open in early November, which means the fall semester wouldn’t end until sometime in February.
Mendez pointed out that students had already lost time because of a two-month strike against austerity measures that cut government funding to universities by more than 50 percent over the next five years. The university had barely been open a month when Maria struck the island, shutting down basic services and electricity to areas that remain affected over a month later.
School districts across Connecticut have been enrolling students whose families are relocating here. As of Friday, October 20, 64 students from Puerto Rico had enrolled in Hartford Public Schools, according to a district spokesman.