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Displaced students from Puerto Rico express gratitude

Hurricane Maria changes study path for college students

Floridians saw their lives disrupted — some more than others — this past September when Hurricane Irma tore through a large swath of the state.

But for Puerto Ricans who suffered through Hurricane Maria about two weeks later, the worst natural disaster on record in the Caribbean island and U.S. territory would lead to far more than a disruption. It would be a disaster of historic proportions: still-unconfirmed estimates of as many as 1,000 people or more killed and most of the island’s horribly antiquated infrastructure destroyed.

That’s why Florida Gulf Coast University — which stepped up big time for its neighbors in the region during Irma as an emergency shelter for evacuated Southwest Floridians, pets and all — again answered the call of compassion at a time of urgent need by opening its doors and hearts to Puerto Rican students displaced by the carnage of Maria.

One of the students who took FGCU up on the offer of in-state tuition to continue their higher education here said that two of her friends died in the storm. Another student talked of having nothing but rainwater to drink for two weeks.

Puerto Rican students
Puerto Rican students (from left) Kiana Feliciano, Phabiolah Cardona, Lani Molina, Jose Ruiz, Diego Sepulveda, Paola Reyes and Jamie Cumba outside the Outdoor Sports Complex on campus. They are among 14 students from Puerto Rico and two from the U.S. Virgin Islands who came to FGCU after Hurricane Maria uprooted their lives.

All these displaced young adults — at least those who gathered for a photo shoot in late March at the majestic Eagle logo on the wall of the Outdoor Sports Complex — said how grateful they are to FGCU for the opportunity to get on with their lives, at least the academic part. One even singled out Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who will now “forever get the Puerto Rican vote in any election,” according to Jose Ruiz, a computer science major from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon who is working in software engineering at FGCU, because Scott was quick to extend meaningful assistance to the devastated island.

Paola Reyes, a biology major from UPR at Ponce who helped us gather her Puerto Rican FGCU classmates for the photo with this story, plans to complete her undergraduate degree here. “It’s been amazing,” said Reyes, whose parents fled Puerto Rico with her. “I’ve loved the experience here. I’ve really enjoyed classes and the various extracurricular activities, been part of the basketball excitement at the games, and made some good friends.” And even though it was a natural disaster that brought her to FGCU, Reyes says she “wouldn’t change this experience for anything.”

The FGCU “experience” hasn’t been lost on music major Lani Molina, a violist who attended the Conservatorio De Musica in San Juan. “At the conservatory, my classes were all related specifically to music,” said Molina, who happened to be visiting Fort Myers when the hurricane struck, and knew she wouldn’t be returning. “Here, I’ve been able to take classes in different subject areas like math and science, which I’ve really enjoyed. Everyone studies something different, so I can learn different things from other people as well.”

Dean Batchelder, FGCU’s associate director for undergraduate recruitment, said there were no special concessions made for the 14 students from Puerto Rico (and two others from the U.S. Virgin Islands) admitted for the spring semester, other than the in-state tuition waiver for up to four semesters. Another seven Puerto Rican students already have been accepted for the fall.

“We worked hard to expedite their admissions, and it was a blessing to be able to assist them in pursuit of their higher education,” Batchelder said.