Puerto Rican students deserve support from university

Alberto Martinez

On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, wrecking homes, businesses, roads and bridges. It shredded millions of trees and destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical power grid. Almost two months later, roughly 70 percent of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in the island remain without electricity. They’ve endured a distressing lack of food, water, communication, gasoline, lighting, refrigeration, medicines, etc.  

I’ve been there. Wrecked windows and roofs. Twelve hour lines for gasoline. No traffic lights. Most businesses are closed. I know people who collect rainwater to drink.

National Nurses United, the largest U.S. union of nurses, complains on Capitol Hill that what they’re seeing in Puerto Rico is “worse than anything they had witnessed on other humanitarian missions, including the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Haiti.” 

On Sept. 28, Puerto Rican faculty at UT wrote a letter to President Gregory Fenves urging UT to “serve as a refuge to receive students that can’t continue their studies because their universities are closed due to Hurricane Maria’s destruction.”

Then we waited patiently, for five weeks, until President Fenves replied. Contrary to our hopes, he wrote that our suggestions are “ineffectual for the real needs of those suffering in Puerto Rico.”

This reply is deeply disappointing.

Meanwhile, multiple universities have rushed to help Puerto Rican college students. “For example, Brown University is letting “up to 50” students finish their semester at Brown, donating tuition and fees, and is letting some of these students do their spring semester, too. Furthermore, Brown is providing housing, complimentary meal plans, and paid transportation for such Puerto Rican students, and is doing a fundraiser for Puerto Rico. Even the Provost at Brown is housing a displaced student.

Other universities have also promptly offered aid. Tulane is offering a tuition-free guest semester. Florida State University is offering in-state tuition for Puerto Rican students. New Jersey City University is also offering in-state tuition, plus a $2,000 scholarship. SUNY is offering in-state tuition, on its 64 campuses. The University of Arkansas is also offering in-state tuition. Cornell is donating a free semester for “up to 58 students.” Wesleyan University is offering a free semester in spring 2018 to students enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico. Plus, Wesleyan offers “free housing and meals as needed.”

Seeing other universities investing hundreds and thousands of dollars in accommodations to help Puerto Rican students, it is exasperating to not receive a prompt and substantive offer of assistance from President Fenves. One of my colleagues referred to the long wait for a reply as “really frustrating.” And in an interview professor Cesar Salgado said, “I’m sure that President Fenves will mobilize.”

Nowadays, many people complain that the federal government is not doing nearly enough to help Puerto Rico. 

The crisis is so urgent that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has acknowledged that its mission in Puerto Rico is the most “logistically complex response in FEMA history.” Now, FEMA has agreed to pay 90 percent of the costs of repairing Puerto Rico’s power grid and infrastructure, an unprecedented proportion beyond FEMA’s usual maximum of 75 percent.

But still, tens of thousands of people are fleeing Puerto Rico. “Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Ricans are expected to soon leave the island due to Hurricane Maria,” according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

Some UT faculty and students are helping Puerto Rico. But it’s disappointing to hear that UT administrators will do none of the accommodations that have been promptly and generously donated by other universities: Brown, Tulane, FSU, New Jersey State University, SUNY, University of Arkansas, Cornell, Wesleyan, etc.

 I look forward to what the UT President’s Office will do, as they gradually “continue to look for ways to help in relief efforts,” as Fenves writes.

Are there rooms in dorms that are currently empty? Are there displaced University of Puerto Rico students that are already in Austin? Can they do coursework at UT-Austin, by taking empty seats, under special arrangements? Can they do coursework online? 

Certain administrators, such as our President, Provost, plus the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, have discretionary funds that, I believe, can be assigned to help our outreach educational mission.

It isn’t too late to help Puerto Rican students. UT can identify faculty volunteers, such as myself, who are willing to assign and grade coursework for selected Puerto Rican students (pro bono), and submit grades to the University of Puerto Rico, if the UPR is willing to directly file such grades into the students’ UPR transcripts. This would cost UT nothing. Such work can begin soon and be graded next semester.

The least I’d expect is that UT’s administration will please contribute, say, $5,000 to be used to somehow help deserving students from Puerto Rico, and to fulfill our University’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement mission of being “a national model for integrating diversity and community engagement into the core mission of a university.”  

Martinez is a Puerto Rican professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.