BY ANNA KANE ’20
As Puerto Rico continues to struggle in the wake of Hurricane Maria, many colleges and universities in the United States are offering students who experienced an interruption in their studies a place to continue their education. Mount Holyoke College is among these institutions.
Mount Holyoke will offer two full and two partial scholarships for Puerto Rican students in the 2018-2019 academic year. Through the Maria Scholarship Award, two admitted first-year students from Puerto Rico will be offered full tuition scholarships, which is nearly $200,000 per recipient to cover their prospective four years at the College, according to the Mount Holyoke website. The College will also offer two students who transfer from the University of Puerto Rico a renewable $25,000 per year merit scholarship. The College has received four applications so far, with a deadline of Jan. 15.
“One of the reasons why Mount Holyoke has chosen to offer the scholarships is because it was unable to send admissions counselors there this year, due to the effects of Hurricane Maria,” said Dean of Admission Gail Berson in a statement to the Greenfield Recorder in November.
“We are glad that MHC has decided to join a long list of institutions that have committed to supporting Puerto Rican students whose studies and, more importantly, lives were disrupted by the hurricane. We have strong links to the island, particularly through Holyoke [where there is a large Puerto Rican population in Holyoke]. I wish we could have done more,” said Nieves Romero-Diaz, the chair of Spanish, Latinx and Latin American Studies.
Sofia Rivera Negron ’18 was born and raised in Puerto Rico, just outside of San Juan in a wealthy section of the city. It took two months before her neighborhood regained power, and she will be returning home for December break. “I had the option to stay on campus but I think my emotional sanity needs me to go back. I have to see the new normal that is Puerto Rico, because the island I left in September does not exist anymore,” she said.
Hurricane Maria struck the island in September, just before the University of Puerto Rico was set to begin classes. According to Forbes, the University was forced to close until it was able to reopen about a month later on Oct. 30. The University of Puerto Rico is the largest and only public university in Puerto Rico and spans 11 campuses, according to Forbes.
A statement on UPR’s homepage warns that, “Due to the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, our services and communications are limited.” While 65 percent of the island is still without power and seven percent is still without running water, UPR has little access to clean water and electricity, making it difficult to continue offering students an education for the time being, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
A recent report from UPR’s interim president, Darel Hillman, estimates university damage to be valued at $118 million. Some of the campuses have internet hot spots, but many of the rural campuses are not able to offer internet access to students. Facilities and research equipment were heavily damaged, and students are having trouble studying without libraries and the internet. Some students have also had to miss classes or drop out of school because they are unable to get to their campuses due to damage to roadways and traffic lights that are inoperable.
And UPR suffered financially before the hurricane even struck the island. “I had seen on Facebook from friends still on the island and former teachers how the school year was so heavily disrupted and many students didn’t know when they could continue an education. On top of a crippling debt crisis, the only method of mobility is higher education. Institutions like Mount Holyoke giving these opportunities would benefit the economy and social prosperity for the future of Puerto Rico,” said Negron.
“The situation at Puerto Rico continues to be critical. I hope people are aware of this and keep helping through our own community’s organizations, such as Enlace de Familias in Holyoke, and by calling our representatives,” said Romero-Diaz.
Like Mount Holyoke, other institutions in the Five College Consortium are also offering Puerto Rican students opportunities to study at their respective campuses. Smith College is creating a visiting students program that allows UPR students to study there for the spring semester. Smith will grant students accepted to the program free tuition, room and board, and a stipend that covers books, personal expenses and transportation costs.
Similar to Smith College, Amherst College will offer current students from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands who have completed 32 or more credit hours of coursework a place at Amherst for the 2018 spring semester through a new special visiting students program, according to their website. Students will be selected based on their academic excellence and how much space is available in the dorms as current students study abroad in the spring. Amherst College will cover tuition, fees, room and board, books, transportation and health insurance.
According to their website, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst will also aid Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island students affected by Hurricane Maria. While UMass Amherst hasn’t created a new program, they have a domestic exchange program that can be used to help students transfer and finish their education at the university. Once students apply, they will then be eligible for financial aid programs.
One of the biggest criticisms of mainland colleges and universities offering students opportunities to study at or transfer to their institutions is the detrimental financial impact it will have on their home institutions as they lose so many students and struggle to rebuild. Among the Five Colleges, Amherst College is the only institution that offers a solution to this problem.
Amherst will cover students’ tuition to their home institutions for the spring semester in an effort to financially help colleges on the islands in the aftermath of the hurricane. Negron, however, thinks that Mount Holyoke’s Hurricane Maria scholarships are great.
“The fact is that the island is at a standstill right now and UPR is one of the only institutions trying to keep a sense of normalcy. However, it cannot do miracles. If Puerto Rican talent can have the opportunity to graduate and come back with skills that could reignite the broader economy, it is all we can possibly hope for,” she said.
“Any students that choose to come to Mount Holyoke to finish their education does not mean that they are rejecting Puerto Rico or an education there.,” said Negron. “UPR and other higher institutions are fantastic, and critical to the Puerto Rican identity. Please be understanding that the students who choose to be at Mount Holyoke are probably making some of the most difficult and heavy choices for their futures and that of their families.”