Joyce Mendoza had only five credits left till graduation when Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, hitting her school, La Universidad de Puerto Rico Rio Piedras (University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus).
Broken trees and branches littered the campus grounds. Downed power lines and debris-littered roads made basic communication a challenge. With little information except that the school would be closed for at least two months, Mendoza opted to leave Puerto Rico.
“I just couldn’t deal with the wait,” she said.
Mendoza is among thousands of college students in Puerto Rico who were faced with two stark options after the hurricane: flee the island and continue their educations elsewhere or stay and live with the uncertainty of when or if they would be able to resume their studies.
Mendoza was luckier than most of her peers. She had previously worked in New York in an internship and knew the city well. So when she heard from a friend at NYU about the university’s Hurricane Maria Assistance Program (HMAP), she was well positioned to apply.
Under the program, NYU provided around 50 students with a semester of free tuition, housing, meal plans, health insurance, and $200 stipends for books. Although they attended NYU at no cost, accepted students had to pay their regular spring tuition to their home campus as well as the cost of transportation to New York.
Similar programs were initiated at Brown, Cornell and Tulane University, whose students had been on the receiving end of guest semesters following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The idea behind the assistance programs was to minimize the hurricane’s disruption of academic studies by giving young scholars a place to continue their work and giving Puerto Rican universities and colleges a few months for recovery efforts without fear of permanently losing their best and brightest students to the mainland. The phenomenon of “brain drain” is a significant fear in Puerto Rico.
Even before the hurricane, an exodus of Puerto Ricans was shrinking the island’s population. Many of the migrants were young, educated and frustrated by the lack of job opportunities in Puerto Rico, which has been in an economic crisis for 12 years. Following Hurricane Maria, the pace of departures intensified.
Last year, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimated that nearly 160,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island since Hurricane Maria.
According to a report by La Universidad de Puerto Rico, more than 59,000 students were enrolled in 2017. By 2019, the university reported 55,000 were enrolled—a decline of 4,000 students in the wake of the hurricane.
Journalism student Angelica Sirrano stayed on the island after Hurricane Maria. She attends La Universidad de Sagrado Corazón (University of the Sacred Heart) in San Juan, and the school’s director of the student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Her school was one of the first universities in Puerto Rico to reopen. But for weeks after the hurricane, Sirrano’s classes met in white tents on campus because the buildings were not safe and didn’t have internet or electricity.
Sirrano recalls that time as exasperating. She and her peers could think or talk about nothing but Maria. Her professors wanted the students to write about the hurricane and the lives it had upended. Sirrano remembers thinking, “Please don’t give me more assignments on Maria, I hate Maria.”
“Maria is that topic that never ends,” Sirrano said, laughing at the memory.
But Sirrano is a journalist, so she reported. She helped the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) in Puerto Rico by interviewing families across the island to track down the number of deaths after Hurricane Maria.
Sirrano said it was difficult to report on storm-battered neighborhoods where the damage mirrored the wreckage of her home.
“When [sources] say they don’t have any energy, they won’t have water, they don’t have food and when you go back to your house and you don’t have that also, it’s difficult because you also need to report, work or inform people, but you are a citizen, too.”
As soon as the storm passed, Sirrano was eager to get back to class. She said she originally thought the recovery would take only a week. But the slow pace of rebuilding, the steamy tented classrooms, and the lack of internet compounded the stress of school work and took a toll on her grades.
“I always have been a student of A’s and after Maria I see I get a C, I get a B,” Sirrano said. “It was a consequence of Maria and you’re very stressed, you need to work with your family, with your own person and being in school… it’s a difficult process.”
Mendoza would have seemed to have it easy by comparison. Once she was accepted for a guest semester at NYU, her old boss in New York helped pay her airfare.
But returning to New York felt more difficult this time because of the suffering she had left behind.
“For me it was more of a shock to come from mass destruction … to New York where it’s a lot of hustle and bustle,” Mendoza said.
Despite her longing for a new place to call home, Puerto Rico has left a mark on her. With tight copper curls, a nose piercing and multiple tattoos on her back and arm, Mendoza finds ways to express herself. One of her biggest permanent expressions is the delicate outline of Puerto Rico’s island, along with the state’s flower – the hibiscus – that spans the width of her shoulder blade.
The journey from grim apocalypse to the “City that Never Sleeps” was disconcerting, to say the least.
“Knowing that your island is destroyed and you’re moving on, there’s a lot of guilt attached to that,” Mendoza said. “So I guess the guilt comes from like, that you know you’re kind of making this selfish decision.”
From afar, Mendoza followed the hurricane recovery almost wistfully. She remembers looking through photos of her damaged campus on Facebook. She heard from friends that they had formed groups to help clear downed trees on the school grounds.
Sirrano, the one who stayed behind, dove into the clean-up effort. She said she understands why students may have left, but she also sees it as an issue of “privilege.”
One of her classmates, Genesis Rodriguez, agreed. A sophomore majoring in journalism at La Universidad de Sagrado Corazon, she struggled with both physical and emotional obstacles after the hurricane.
“There was a lot of sacrifice,” Rodriguez said.
She recalled working on a group project as the editor, and she needed to create a digital newspaper layout. It was months after the hurricane, but her house still did not have electricity. So she had to search for WiFi to finish her work. She found it at a local Burger King.
Rodriguez had no regrets about her decision to stay on the island.
“I would like to stay in Puerto Rico. This is my home,” Rodriguez said. “I would like to contribute and add my grain of sand to help the country.”
Mendoza eventually returned to Puerto Rico to finish her degree in Neuroscience at the Río Piedras campus. The comparisons with NYU were inevitable. Although it’s been over a year since the hurricane, some campus buildings are still closed. And the ones that are open?
“We’re recycling things to keep laboratories running,” Mendoza said. “We’ve not had much funding before the hurricane; after the hurricane, it’s been increasingly difficult.”
Puerto Rico’s ongoing financial crisis is perhaps the main reason for the difficulties at UPR’s 11 campuses. Hurricane Maria swept through the island shortly after a student-led strike against budget cuts and tuition increases shut the Río Piedras campus for several months.
After the hurricane, a fiscal oversight board was created to deal with Puerto Rico’s overall debt. It called for even stricter austerity measures, including deeper cuts to UPR’s budget and a doubling of tuition. Some educators fear that the island’s financial woes will hasten the brain drain as more Puerto Rican students will choose universities on the mainland with lower tuitions and better facilities.
Sirrano doesn’t want that to happen. She has immortalized her love for Puerto Rico with a tattoo of the island’s flag with the numbers 1868 – the year Puerto Rico’s pro-independence movement enacted a rebellion against Spain – just above her left elbow.
But when she is honest with herself, she knows that if she wants to work as a journalist, she might have to move to the mainland. Sirrano said her school tries to help its students find work on the island, but the jobs just aren’t there.
“To think about when I will be working or doing journalism is a very difficult topic to me because you live where you love, but you know there are such limited opportunities here,” Sirrano said.
Rodriguez likewise is not ruling out the possibility of moving to the mainland.
“If I get a better opportunity in another place, well maybe I’d take it,” she said. “You can’t judge other people who leave or don’t because we aren’t in their shoes.”
Counselor Aracelis Ramos has witnessed a wave of migration of students out of La Universidad de Sagrado Corazon. “It was a huge loss for the University,” Ramos said.
For students who live further inland, traveling back to school was difficult. “Roads were not in the appropriate condition for them to come all the way here,” Ramos said.
Even after the university recovered, Ramos said many students still did not have water or electricity in their hometowns.
As a result, Ramos said many students left school to live with family in Florida, Texas and New York. Ramos said this is an issue not only for the university, but for the island itself.
“It’s super important that they stay here,” Ramos said. “For this country to move forward and for Puerto Rico to progress depends a lot on them. Because they are the future, the next generations of people that will be working and fighting for our country.”
In order to combat the exodus of students, Ramos said the school has set up job fairs on campus to promote opportunities for students to work on the island.
Short of solving the debt crisis, the best hope for ending the brain drain might lie with initiatives such as Parallel18. It’s a start-up accelerator—named for the degree of latitude on which Puerto Rico is situated—that tries to attract young entrepreneurs from both the island and around the world.
Marie Custodio, the outreach manager at Parallel18, said that over the past three years her organization has worked with more than 200 companies. About 30 percent of company founders are Puerto Rican and a majority of them are also under 30 years old.
From an economic point of view, Custodio said it is important that young people stay in Puerto Rico because they bring new ideas to the business environment. She also noted that they can reap benefits by starting a business in Puerto Rico.
“Here you have the advantage of the talent, an island that is bilingual, multicultural and highly educated and there is less competition for the talent than the other innovation hubs in the United States,” Custodio said.
In 2012, Puerto Rico enacted Act 20 that gave tax incentives to companies that established their businesses on the island, including a 4 percent corporate tax rate, 100 percent exemption on property taxes and 100 percent exemption on dividends and profit distributions.
Custodio said that a better business climate and the help of accelerators like Parallel 18 might lure back some Puerto Ricans who have left.
“There’s always this feeling of people who left the island of wanting to come back,” Custodio said.
Rodriguez would go one step further.
“For those that decide to study in the U.S. or outside Puerto Rico, I think it’s important they come back and apply all that outside knowledge they learned to help improve [the quality of life],” she said.