Puerto Rico Students Escape Hurricane Damage and Spend Semester at Cornell, Reflecting Back

May 31, 2018

Jose DeJesus Szendry was first overwhelmed by the size of the Cornell campus, but eventually settled in. He was offered a semester at Cornell because the University of Puerto Rico Carolina Campus was closed.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

Cornell University said goodbye this past week to a special group of students who spent a semester in Ithaca because they couldn’t attend college in Puerto Rico.  The special offer came their way after Hurricane Maria devastated much of the Island.  WAER’s Chris Bolt found out the experience had impacts on the students as well as the Cornell community.

Jose DeJesus Szendry and Andrea Valdes Valderamma had one expected reaction when they came to Cornell back in January.

“The first thing I had to cope with was the weather.  My Mother was like, ‘you do know that’s Upstate New York. The weather is going to be extremely cold over there’,” Jose said.

“This is the middle of nowhere, was my first impression,” added Andrea.  “It’s really cold.”

They also found the classes to be quite hard … but the campus and community quite welcoming.  Provost Mike Kotlikoff says the University offered the free semester so the hurricane wouldn’t derail their studies.

“That was part of the thinking of trying to make this obviously traumatic event, trying to make a small difference there.”

He says in addition to Cornell covering tuition and other fees, the community held luncheons, raised money for other needs, even knitted gloves and sweaters for the students. 

Andrea Valdes Valderama welcomed the challenging coursework at Cornell, and says she'd consider coming back for grad school.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News / WAER FM

Andrea found the experience very rewarding academically – she’s considering coming back for grad school -- Plus she opened some eyes across cultures.

“I tell them, I’m from Puerto Rico, and they’re like, ‘Oh.  How’s it going down there.’  And they’re forced to open the dialogue about it.  And I’ve seen that through that dialogue people learn about my country in ways that maybe they hadn’t learned about it before.  Obviously they didn’t experience what it was like to be in the hurricane.  So for them to be able to meet me, they were able to empathize maybe a little bit more.”

Andrea wants to take something back to help Puerto Rico recover, and then work to improve understanding among other cultures.  Jose also embraced the experience, even if he was a little guilty for leaving family and friends in the storm-torn country.

“Things were pretty bad when I left.  And I felt pretty bad, like leaving my family in all that mess that was occurring.  I’d say things have gotten a little bit better but I know even though I’ll be back, things are going to be pretty messy.”

He took Latin art and digital communications classes, and got to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a professor while here.

“That was like, my Silver Lining from Maria.  Because thanks to the hurricane I was given the opportunity to come here and study for a semester.”

Cornell Provost Mike Kotlikoff says a number of the schools' Deans helped develop the plan to offer a free semester for Puerto Rico students affected by Hurricane Maria.
Credit Cornell.edu

Provost Kotlikoff wonders about what they left behind … and how the entire operation said something to all involved.

“People are looking out for fellow Americans.  We did talk about how this might influence the students in terms of thinking about this outreach in the future and paying that forward to other students and others around them in the future.  And I think that mindset, that ethos, I certainly hope that sticks with the students that were here.”

“For sure.  I have grown so much as a person; I’ve grown as a student; I’ve grown mentally.  I’ve really expanded what I thought I knew and I’ve questioned a lot about myself, my identity,” added Andrea.  “I’ve questioned a lot about Puerto Rico and its situation, about being a Latino ,about being somebody here instead of being in Puerto Rico. To see a variety of cultures, to see a variety of just knowledge, is amazing for me.  And I’ve had to go out of my comfort zone and I’ve had to adapt, and I think that will be really useful to me eventually.”

Andrea is an English Literature major and  hopes to go on to get a Ph.D. in minority studies – perhaps at Cornell.  She envisions telling stories that can bridge the gaps between other people.

Jose and Andrea are on their way back to Puerto Rico, which is still struggling, but they had the chance to grow thanks to the Cornell opportunity.

A total of 62 students were able to take advantage of the semester at Cornell.  Most , including Maria and Jose, are now planning to continue their education back home at the University of Puerto Rico campuses.