It was 6:15 a.m. on Sept. 20 when Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico.
Pedro Vega Agosto stayed in his home in Caguas, Puerto Rico as hurricane winds shook the entire house and rain beat on the roof.
“It was a real experience — a terrifying experience,” said the 20-year-old accounting major from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.
Agosto was heartbroken by the damage he encountered outside after the worst of it had passed.
“It was like waking up to a whole new Puerto Rico,” he said.
While Agosto’s family’s home only received minimum hurricane damage, including the loss of AC compressors, a pool table, light bulbs and a couple of trees, others in his community did not have much of a home left.
This is why the University of Florida decided to offer free tuition to students in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Tammy Aagard, the associate vice president for enrollment management said the displaced students’ program allows those affected by the hurricanes to take as many online classes as they want from a selected list through UF in spring 2018 and summer 2018 without having to pay tuition and fees. These courses will count toward students’ degrees as long as they are compatible with their school’s requirements.
UF requires that students prove they attended one of the 19 partnered institutions for students to enroll and receive credit.
This is not the first time that a program like this is being offered to students. After Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005, universities came together and accepted students from the schools located there.
UF was one of the universities that allowed displaced students to take select courses through its online program for a few semesters. This allowed students’ education to stay on track while their home institutions recovered, explained Aagard.
While there were many students who took advantage of these offers during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, university officials expect even more victims of Hurricane Maria to participate.
“It will give a little bit of normalcy back into their lives,” Aagard said.
All of these classes are available online. But because of inconsistency with electricity and cell phone coverage, many of these potential students have moved in with relatives in the states.
“We’ve heard from people from California, New York City area — really everywhere,” Aagard said.
Puerto Rican students have 144 courses they can choose from in the spring semester that are geared toward UF Online students. These courses range from Theatre Appreciation to Molecular Genetics to Principles of Entrepreneurship, according to UF’s website.
While more than 235 students already applied to UF’s undergraduate program for those affected by the hurricanes, this option isn’t working for everyone.
Agosto was interested in UF’s displaced students program after learning about it during an October visit to a friend at UF.
Agosto and his friend, Angel Santiago, the president of UF’s Unión de Estudiantes Puertorriqueños Activos, learned of the program before it was fully set up, but had questions about its relevance.
With slow and inconsistent internet access and a ruined landscape, Puerto Rico didn’t seem to be the ideal place to continue an online education, Agosto said.
“Some universities, like Brown University and New York University were offering students free tuition and housing on campus,” Agosto said. “I don’t understand why UF, which is relatively close to Puerto Rico, didn’t offer this. It didn’t make sense.”
According to Aagard, UF chose to offer online classes because moving to Gainesville and finding a place to live could be difficult and expensive. Additionally, online courses allow displaced students to study at UF without filling seats in classes that current UF students need to stay on track.
Santiago had his own concerns with the program. With friends looking into the program, Santiago quickly learned of limitation on course selections. He found that many courses would only accommodate students early in their undergraduate education.
Agosto is a junior and did not find upper-division classes. Most classes offered were geared toward students who were not close to finishing their degree, Santiago said.
“UF should have made it better for students who can finish their degrees in two to three semesters,” Santiago said. “I feel like we have the resources and money to do this.”
According to Aagard, UF is offering upper-division courses to students. That being said, some courses normally offered to students, like internship-related courses, have been removed because they aren’t appropriate for students not studying in that major, she said.
Although Santiago has his concerns, people in Puerto Rico are pushing through their individual circumstances. Many public schools have resumed classes even without power, Santiago said.
Agosto’s university was lucky to receive less damage than others and opened its doors on Oct. 30. While his fall semester will run into early February, which will cause his spring semester to start late and end in May, he will remain on track to graduate in 2019, he said.
“I’m in a pretty good position to stay here and finish my bachelor’s,” Agosto said.
Paul Duncan, the senior associate dean in the University of Florida graduate school, said the grad school program for displaced students offers them a more individualized experience than the undergraduate program.
“It’s not like the general UF Online opportunity,” Duncan said. “We have to hear from prospective graduate students and talk to them about what they’re interested in.”
With only around 25 displaced graduate students interested so far, students will have the opportunity to work directly with their departments to stay on track to graduate, Duncan said.
The graduate program allows students to take courses online for free in the spring, summer and fall of 2018 if their home institutions aren’t fully operational.
Duncan said UF’s master’s program for displaced students will not only fill a gap in their education, but make it better.
“I think it will definitely be a broadening experience for them,” he said.
The graduate school has also created a separate program to help students from Puerto Rico who are wishing to begin attaining a graduate degree full time from UF as a regular applicant.
With an average of 75 graduate school applicants from Puerto Rico every year, UF is considering alternatives to GRE examinations and transcripts evaluations for students whose home institutions are still recovering, Duncan said.
Although designing a new application process and program has been a challenge, Duncan is confident that UF is right in offering students a way to continue their education.
“I hope that what this will do is keep people on track,” he said.
Even though Agosto didn’t find UF’s programs helpful for him, he has friends who are considering the programs offered to displaced students at various universities across the United States.
While his nation is still devastated by hurricane damage, Agosto said his community will continue to move forward.
“I felt feelings that I didn’t know before,” Agosto said. “It was very sad, the kind of situation I was going through – but it actually made me a lot stronger. I’ve accepted the reality.”
Agosto said he thinks education in Puerto Rico will become stronger and students will become more capable of handling pressure.
“Humans typically exceed their limits just to be normal,” he said. “When the chaos is gone, what you have left is humans whose capacities have been rearranged to handle more pressure because of the chaos.”