In November 2017, nearly two months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria successively devastated the island of Puerto Rico, officials at New York University offered a small group of Puerto Rican students admittance to the world-renowned institution for one semester, granting each of the 57 evacuees escape from the unbearable trauma of devastated life back on the island.
20-year-old Angela Elliston, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, fled her mother’s home in Luquillo to live with family in New York last October. By coincidence, she was explaining her circumstances to staff at NYU admissions last Fall when she encountered an official from the Global Programs department responsible for developing what would soon become the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program (HMAP).
“I remember just holding the recruiter’s hand and just almost crying. I felt such a relief. Because for so long I felt that I had just left the island in a fight or flight situation, in that stress. I just left, I didn’t know what to do.”
One semester later, students who say that their stay at NYU has opened up a world of opportunity both personally and professionally, face returning to a multitude of insecure and troubling circumstances in Puerto Rico. Appeals to NYU leadership for a temporary program extension have proven unsuccessful.
“The dread at what may come to pass next storm season leaves us with an overwhelming sense of stress,” 21 HMAP participants express in a letter to university president Andrew Hamilton asking for a semester-long extension, sent on April 27.
Returning to everyday life under the weight of suffocating austerity measures—including the soon-to-be doubled the cost of tuition, skyrocketing unemployment, an unstable power grid, unreliable communications infrastructure, and in some cases, homes that are uninhabitable—means revisiting traumatic memories that leave students feeling unable to cope.
“After Hurricane Maria, I was barely eating, I was debilitated,” says Carlos Matos, 20, then a student of electrical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. The days following Maria were filled with confusion, anxiety, and anger. Matos’ then-boyfriend, in a fit of rage, attempted to drive his car into another vehicle. “I was in the car next to him,” he says. “I was already dealing with concerns for my family because I had not heard from them yet. And the few people I was with—one of them was endangering my life.”
Following months of battling anxiety, coping with the hospitalization of his mother and a clinically depressed brother who fell ill with Hepatitis A and Dengue in the wake of Maria, Matos caught wind of HMAP and applied. He arrived on campus in January, ready to refocus and recover.
Here in New York, Matos and fellow students have struggled with anxiety, depression, and symptoms of PTSD, but have coped, in part, thanks to the array of services available to them at NYU.
“I get triggered by flashlights,” shares Matos, concerned that he’ll be unable to handle with his anxiety upon returning to Puerto Rico. “A lot of the professors at home won’t understand you having anxiety episodes, even after Maria. A lot of professors, or the administration themselves won’t understand depression.”
“I get triggered by knocks on the door. My heart just drops,” remarks Elliston, whose family home is unlivable. “My mom is trying to fix it and she’s trying to find loans and insurance. The roof is a drain. When it rains, the water just falls from there. We have electricity in the house but we don’t have a light because the water came in from there—it’s dangerous.”
Christian de la Cruz, 26, a student from Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and freelance film editor, is uncertain whether he’ll be able to pay his tuition and fears that speaking out might land him out of work in Puerto Rico. “If I go back home, there’s a very real probability that if the government sees this, I will be blacklisted, and I will not have a job on the island.” Regardless, he is adamant that his time at NYU has helped him heal.
“It’s almost like a decolonization of the mind. I found something in me that, as a Puerto Rican is worth fighting for, is worth asking for help,” remarks Cruz.
Josh Taylor, the Associate Vice Chair of Global Programs at NYU, claims that one of the institution’s primary goals in establishing HMAP was “assisting students, while not harming their home institutions own recovery efforts.” Students are still required to pay tuition to their home universities so as not to harm enrollment in Puerto Rico, where enrollment dropped from 61,748 to 58,402 students between the 2017 and 2018 academic years, according to the Financial Oversight and Management Board’s latest fiscal plan.
Referred to as the “brain drain”, the mass exodus of Puerto Rico’s professionals is broadly viewed as harmful to the island’s economic future. Frederico Cintrón-Moscoso, an anthropologist and adjunct professor at the University of Puerto Rico, argues that under increasingly unbearable circumstances created by Congress and the island’s fiscal control board — issues that predated the storms but have exacerbated the challenge of the recovery — residents see no other option.
“Instead of promoting policies that create decent jobs and protect essential services, our administrators have decided to curtail our rights, cut our pensions, privatize our resources and further increase our precariousness. This is creating an ever-growing environment of indignation, anxiety, and unrest that has resulted in either people leaving the country or demonstrating out on the street, as we saw last week in the May 1st demonstrations.”
Staff of Global Programs, surprised by the student-led push to remain at NYU, question why those enrolled in similar programs at Tulane, Brown, Emory, and other universities have not asked for extensions. At a recent meeting with Taylor, Matos explained that students’ silence likely indicates the presence of internalized oppression rather than a lack of anxiety.
“I had to explain to him the reality that we are raised in a place where speaking alone is something to fear. Our culture has been embedded with a level of oppression that makes voicing a concern feel like an outright attack on someone.”
Matos’ and others remain frustrated that requests for help have been met with blanket statements from university officials and agencies like FEMA arguing that the situation on the island is stable and that residents are obligated to return.
“Based on our conversations with representatives from schools in Puerto Rico, we believe that extending our program would, in fact, cause harm to their own recovery efforts,” writes president Hamilton in a response to the students’ request on May 2.
“I don’t know exactly what they mean by that,” remarks Matos. “I interpreted it as, they lose their competitiveness, or their ranking, because their top students are not there. My response to that is that they’re not considering the human beings impacted.”
Similar concerns have been echoed by members of the NYC Council, who signed a letter addressed to Hamilton on April 30 calling on the University to reconsider.
Asked for comment, New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera asked NYU to “strongly consider the economic crisis that has led to the implementation austerity measures executed by the new oversight board, which is prioritizing the fiscal viability of the island over the humanitarian needs of the Puerto Rican people.”
For its part, the feds say life on the island is steadily getting back to normal.
“Every day conditions on the island continue to improve,” writes FEMA spokesperson Juan A. Rosado-Reynés. “As of today, FEMA has received over 1.1 million registrations for disaster assistance with more than $1 billion dollars approved under FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program.”
But not everyone buys that. Peter Gudaitis, Executive Director of New York Interfaith Disaster Services, disputes FEMA’s account, claiming that “60 percent of all FEMA [Individual Assistance] applicants are still being rejected during their first round of applications.” Regarding NYU’s decision to end HMAP, he adds, “When you start supporting evacuees or disaster survivors, you end up having an obligation to those people to not leave them hanging in the recovery process.”
Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, remains acutely aware of the severity of the crisis on the island and the lack of long-term engagement by mainland institutions in the recovery of its residents. “The impression that I get from this action is that it’s less about a more sustained recovery effort and more about, ‘Look how good we are, look at what we did,'” remarks Yeampierre in response to NYU’s decision to send students home.
“There’s still half a million people who don’t have electricity. Right now the suicide levels in Puerto Rico have gone up 55 percent. And they are disparately affecting young people.”
“I would personally like to finish my education here,” says Elliston. “Even if it’s not NYU – if they extend it one semester, I’d have more time to look around. But I’ve always said that—no matter where I go, build my career somewhere, I will always come back to the island. It’s my home.”
“You know NYU is going to exist the next, I don’t know, 10 years?” says Matos. “You don’t know that in Puerto Rico. My institutions are so unstable that you don’t know if you can finish there.”
Under HMAP, the group has studied without hindrance and with access to basic resources sorely lacking at Puerto Rico’s crumbling public universities, which sustained approximately $132 million in damage, according to the fiscal report. On top of storm damage, funding cuts, regular protests against the rising cost of tuition that shut down classes, and uncertainty whether the universities will remain open amidst mass school closures impede students’ ability to focus.
“At Río Piedras, the communications building had its ceiling completely destroyed and all their equipment, so they don’t have any funding to recover that. My electrical engineering building had asbestos,” says Matos of UPR’s campus in Mayagüez.
Elliston recalls seeing photos the shell of the building that once housed her French classroom. “I’ve never seen so much destruction,” she says. “Your seat is probably a mile away right now.” Elliston’s aunt, a teacher at UPR, developed chronic allergies as a result of fungus growing in the ventilation system on campus before the storm. “Before, people were actually getting sick. And imagine now.”
In a statement issued to City Limits, University of Puerto Rico Interim Vice President Ilka C. Ríos-Reyes writes, “At this time all of the UPR System and its 11 Campuses are fully functional and thus ready to receive these students for the next academic year 2018-2019. We understand that there is no need for these students to continue receiving relief aid offered by Mainland colleges.”