Navigating a New Course

//BY JIMMY SHERFEY

In tumultuous times, Puerto Rican students look at the silver lining.

Remember back to your first year in college. Think about the change, the excitement, the uncertainty, peering at the precipice of adulthood with equal parts nerves and bravado. Then imagine taking this major step in 2017 Puerto Rico. On-campus protests have all but shut down the spring semester. And the fall semester is cut short by one of the most devastating weather events in recent memory. For many students new to the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the lack of electricity and running water compounded with prior fits and starts, might have rendered the dream of a degree on their home island unattainable.

Then, word began to spread that higher education institutions across Florida (per the direction of Gov. Rick Scott) would offer in-state tuition to evacuees of the embattled island. Puerto Ricans looking for higher education opportunities in the states—and lucky enough to find internet in the weeks following Hurricane Maria—may have stumbled upon the image of their flag held above Valencia College’s East Campus mall. Taken on Sept. 21—just a day after Maria, when the college announced it would waive out-of-state fees—it would become one of the most shared items on the college’s social media channels in 2017.

Puerto Rican flag

A member of the East Campus grounds crew raise the Puerto Rican flag on Sept. 21 in support of the U.S. territory left reeling by Hurricane Maria.

wave papercut illustration

As difficult months dragged on, the young students of Puerto Rico were faced with a decision: stay home and tread water through the interminable waves of political unrest and natural disaster—or transfer to an unfamiliar institution in a new and more expensive metropolitan area more than one thousand miles away.

Mydalis Lugo Marrero, a Spanish language professor in Valencia College’s Continuing Education Department, says that since Puerto Ricans immigrating to the states are U.S. citizens, they don’t always share the same challenges as immigrants from other parts of Latin America. Nevertheless, whether those arriving in Florida over the past two decades were displaced by natural disaster or arriving under their own volition, they came from the small U.S. territory in search of something better. Lugo, whose doctoral dissertation zeroed in on recent waves of migration from Puerto Rico to Central Florida, says that displaced Puerto Ricans weigh the difficulties encountered against the benefits of their newfound home.

“Among the difficulties they find are a lack of social life, fractured emotional bonds—for example, being far from family—and the loneliness,” says Lugo. “Meanwhile, the benefits include the tranquility, a better quality of life, better economy, more services and more security.”

Since 2000, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has more than doubled, and a sharp increase in immigration to Orlando had occurred as the island’s economic conditions began to deteriorate in 2015. When Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean Sea in September 2017, it only hastened the trend.

In November 2017, the New York Times published an article with the dramatic headline “A Great Migration from Puerto Rico is Set to Transform Orlando.” Indeed—as the article states—168,000 had fled Puerto Rico to Florida in the wake of the devastation, and 100,000 more were booked on flights to Orlando through the end of 2017.

According to a Feb. 21 article at CNN, by 2018, the Orlando metro area would receive nearly 3,000 address changes from Puerto Rico, more than any other metro area in the nation. Florida’s Department of Education had taken on 11,500 new enrollments from Puerto Rico, 70 percent of those students going to Orange and Osceola Public Schools.

In the CNN report, FIU professor Jorge Duany called the “Exodus” after Maria “the greatest migration ever from Puerto Rico since records have been taken”—quite a statement given the uptick in departures from the island in the years preceding the major event.

A Rough Start

Austerity measures placed on the U.S. territory beginning in 2015 in response to a growing debt crisis had a ripple effect on every part of Puerto Rican society. In the higher education sector, authorities raised the cost of college credits in the University system, a move met with sharp opposition by the student body and faculty, leading to a series of on-campus protests and, ultimately, a strike.

Coralis Almestica Cintrón began studying at Valencia College’s East Campus in January 2018. Just nine months before, her first year in college had come to an abrupt halt when the protests at University of Puerto Rico in San Juan gripped the college campus. Because of the unrest, she was unable to study until June of 2017, when classes resumed.

“This was one of the reasons I chose to leave,” says Coralis from her apartment near East Campus. She was beginning her fall semester in Puerto Rico when the unease of a potentially protracted strike was traded for the threat of two major hurricanes brewing over warm summer waters off the Atlantic, threatening to rock the small island with back-to-back hits.

Irma skirted by while leaving the island relatively unscathed as the category 5 took aim at Florida, ultimately putting the sunshine state out of commission for a week. But it was quickly followed by Maria, which would hit Puerto Rico directly, leaving the territory reeling for several months. At the first opportunity, Coralis left the island, moving to Atlanta to be with her mother and working a sales job at a MetroPCS.

Back on the island, many Puerto Ricans faced a grueling remainder of 2017. Sofia Garcia Reyes, 19, remembers the months immediately following Maria in Bayamon, a suburb of San Juan. Anxiety during the initial pummeling of the island—exacerbated by two days of felled trees and powerlines, windows broken by gale-force winds, roads crumbling and indoor flooding at her home and her father’s automotive shop—eventually gave way to the frustration caused by countless weeks of life without modern convenience. The family waited for essential resources in long lines that often bore little fruit, surviving on a canned-food diet and learning to ignore the incessant growl of the generators guzzling ever-scarce gasoline through the night.

Valedictorian at her high school, Colegio Congregación Mita, Sofia wasn’t one to wait for opportunity to come to her. When she heard reports that Valencia College, UCF and other institutions across Florida were opening their doors to Puerto Rican students displaced by Hurricane Maria, the decision was easy.

“I was behind because the [spring 2017] semester took so long,” recalled Sofia. “I couldn’t end some classes, because the professors stopped showing up. Then Maria came, and it was a mess, so that’s when I said, ‘I’m done.’”

Sofia decided to move to Orlando, and her parents agreed it was the best thing to do. In the first few weeks, like many Puerto Ricans migrating to Florida, she stayed in the already full house of a family friend, but the living arrangement was only temporary. She cooked, cleaned and helped out wherever possible, so as not to be a burden.

Sofia Garcia Reyes – "I was behind because the [spring 2017] semester took so long...Then Maria came, and it was a mess, so that’s when I said, ‘I’m done.’”

Sofia Garcia Reyes left Puerto Rico as the university system struggled to bounce back from a year plagued by hardships: strikes in the spring and the debilitating blow delivered by Hurricane Maria. Currently, Garcia resides in Lake Nona and attends East Campus.

For Richelle and Gricelle Cruz, twin sisters aged 18, from the small town of Hatillo on Puerto Rico’s north coast, they learned from their father that Valencia College would be offering in-state tuition. Working as an engineer for the U.S. patent office in Detroit, he was able to research opportunities when his daughters did not have the internet connection to do so.

“Hatillo is famous because they produce a lot of milk, and in that town, they joke that there are more cows than people,” says Gricelle. “It’s actually kind of true, to be honest.”

The Cruz twins are now living in an apartment in the semi-rural four corners area with their mother and older brother. They arrived in the U.S. with aspirations to both work and study. Shortly after arriving they were enrolled in the Osceola Campus. Still just 18, Richelle and Gricelle had not yet held a formal job. Work in Puerto Rico has been increasingly hard to come by in recent years. By August 2017, the unemployment rate was 10 percent and steadily rising after the hurricane, compared to 4 percent and falling in Florida during that same period.

Within three weeks in Central Florida, Richelle and Gricelle had jobs, and a place to live—an apartment with their older brother. Gricelle’s employment as an event parking attendant at Osceola Heritage Park proved fairly easy to maneuver. Working primarily on weekends, her schedule rarely conflicts with school. It was, however, a shock dealing with the periodic cold temperatures that came rushing into Central Florida in December 2017 and January 2018.

For them, as with many of the new Puerto Rican students, the initial excitement of learning in a new city was quickly tempered by the reality of navigating its challenges—a bit of a faster pace, higher prices, and a layout that was more sprawling than the urban areas of Puerto Rico. “We are accustomed to everything being close,” says Gricelle. “Here, everything is spread out.”

Navigating the new waters, many of the new students from Puerto Rico faced common obstacles. Getting established, dealing with the pressure of higher rent, finding a job, and learning the ropes of a new college system, are difficult tasks in and of themselves. Doing all of this in the Orlando metro area without a car, turns the adjustment process into a special kind of chess.

“Having to start over in a new place, new home, not having a car for a month was the most difficult,” Richelle says. In Puerto Rico, she was accustomed to participating in club activity, and in high school she dual-enrolled, earning credits that have since transferred to the college.

Gricelle and Richelle Cruz

Gricelle works weekends at Osceola Heritage Park. Richelle works as a concierge in various hotels in the Disney and I-Drive areas.

"Having to start over in a new place, new home, not having a car for a month was the most difficult.”

Making Ends Meet

Even before finding employment, Uber represented a huge chunk of her costs when first settling in. It would be three weeks before their mother would arrive—and another three weeks before the family acquired a car to share. Expenses began to rack up as Richelle traveled from one office to the next, registering for classes and settling into work.

On top of the stress of settling into classes, Richelle spent much of January finishing her college courses via email. With the university’s systems largely off-line, Richelle had to complete her university classes through makeshift distance learning, while getting started at Valencia College’s Osceola Campus.

While juggling a busy schedule had never been a problem for Richelle (she had dual-enrolled and participated in extra-curricular activities back home), the demands of the transition had not allowed her to be particularly active. Missing her experience in the honors program at University of Puerto Rico, she hopes to someday participate in the college’s chapter, in spite of her busy schedule in Orlando.

Working for Allguest Services, a concierge tourism company, Richelle now assists visitors to Orlando with reservations to amusement parks, hotels and restaurants. It took some adjusting. Although she and her sister speak English perfectly, they were not accustomed to speaking every day, thus it took some time to gain confidence.

“When the person you’re speaking to expects everything to be really fast and you see them get frustrated that you don’t talk as well as they do, then obviously, you get nervous and you can’t say what you’re trying to say,” says Richelle.

Nevertheless, she quickly settled into the job, punching in for around 20 hours a week, and often going to class directly after work. This presented another challenge.

“When I have a lot of time between work and class, I take advantage of [the Valencia College-LYNX free rides partnership], but sometimes I have to leave work at 3 and arrive on campus at 4. Then I have to take an Uber, so that I won’t be late,” says Richelle, a necessity that can cost her upwards of $30 when prices are surging. Following a wreck involving a hapless driver of a stolen car, the family encountered frequent car problems and inconvenience while the car was in the shop.

For Sofia, the Bayamon-transplant now based in Lake Nona and studying at East Campus, the lack of a car cost her several job opportunities.

“I looked for Uber and Lyft but they were too expensive, I could not risk spending that kind of money to not get the job, so it was pretty hard for me,” Sofia says. Eventually, her auto-savvy father helped her acquire a minivan during a “check-up” visit to Orlando. With the newfound mobility, she was able to secure a job.

Surrounded by the major thoroughfares of East Orlando, Coralis remained without a car through February relying on her roommate, Stefanie, for rides. Questions of health insurance have also burdened her, as she was unsure as to how to navigate the health system upon arrival. When the Affordable Care marketplace was open, she was still settling in, dealing with a myriad of challenges, not the least of which was extracting her transcripts from the University of Puerto Rico, an institution still largely offline. But most importantly, she was unable to find employment.

“My main thing is I need a job,” said Coralis during a phone interview in mid-February. “I’m looking for jobs every day.” In late February she had acquired a job at an area hotel, but her transportation woes were not over. While she has resolved to set aside money to eventually get a car, other charges loom, such as new driver registration and monthly insurance (Florida Driver’s insurance is higher than Puerto Rico and many other states). She spends an estimated $100 on ride-share every month, further complicating the savings process.

Coralis Almestica Cintrón – "What I want from this experience is to become an independent adult, learn my career and just grow.”

Before Maria ravaged the island, Coralis Almestica Cintrón was accustomed to traveling Puerto Rico and documenting its abundant natural resources. Now in east Orlando, she’s experienced problems with mobility. Unable to afford a car, she frequently takes Uber to both work and to East Campus where she studies.

Displacement to Diploma

Coralis, in spite of the difficulties, has no intention of returning to Puerto Rico without a degree in hand. After Valencia College, she has plans to DirectConnect™ to UCF, where she will study business administration.

“What I want from this experience is to become an independent adult, learn my career and just grow,” says Coralis, adding that she looks forward to interacting with a broader international community found in Central Florida.

Gricelle also appreciates the multicultural aspect of the greater Orlando area, and plans to join the international student club on the Osceola Campus. Even though her new, adoptive home may be a bit more sprawling than what she is used to, she appreciates everything Central Florida has to offer. “I like that there are a lot of fun things that you can do here,” says Gricelle.

Gricelle and Richelle are both studying psychology with plans to major in Criminology and Forensic psychology, respectively. Both plan to DirectConnect™ to UCF after completing their A.A. degrees.

For Sofia, she looks forward to excelling in the medical field with plans to transfer to UCF, then, perhaps, to Boston University. She would like to become a radiologist or a surgeon.

“I love my Puerto Rico,” says Sofia. “But I feel that, right now, my soul is here in Orlando.”