Education

Puerto Rican college students find free tuition, food and housing in Miami after Maria

Childhood friends Ricardo Neco, 19, left, and Omar Jimenez, 20, who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and started classes at Florida International University, on FIU campus on Wednesday, October 26, 2017.
Childhood friends Ricardo Neco, 19, left, and Omar Jimenez, 20, who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and started classes at Florida International University, on FIU campus on Wednesday, October 26, 2017. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

The moment Ricardo Neco stepped outside his home and saw what Hurricane Maria did to his neighborhood, he started planning how to get out of Puerto Rico.

Palm trees were everywhere, electric wires littered the street and even the concrete power poles were bent at 90-degree angles. Recovery anytime soon “seemed impossible.”

“Without even asking my mom I knew I had to get out,” said Neco.

The 19-year-old booked a $140 flight to Orlando with plans to stay with a friend. While waiting for his flight, he drove past the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus in the capital, San Juan, where he studied finance. Officials have pegged the damage to the school at more than $100 million, with severe infrastructure damage to all 11 campuses.

Then Neco found out about a program in Florida — instituted by Gov. Rick Scott — that made Puerto Rican students applicable for in-state tuition. He heard Florida International University had money to help students like him — more than $450,000 worth.

The grant pays for his tuition, his food and a dorm room. He changed his flight to Miami and made arrangements to sleep on the couch of a friend’s South Beach studio apartment. He was sold.

So was his childhood friend, 20-year-old Omar Jimenez. He stuck it out on the island a little longer to help his parents with their nursing home in the mountains, which has been without power or water since Hurricane Irma. Getting food, water, medicine and staff to the remote home has been “a day-to-day challenge,” he said. Still, his parents pushed him to go somewhere and continue studying for his biology degree.

“I wish I could be there helping, but they want me to focus on my studies,” Jimenez said.

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Childhood friends Ricardo Neco, 19, left, and Omar Jimenez, 20, who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and started classes at Florida International University, on FIU campus on Wednesday, October 26, 2017. C.M. GUERRERO. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Jimenez had already planned to move to Florida to get his master’s after he graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with his bachelor’s. His cousin, a law student at FIU, encouraged him to transfer to her school, at least until his island gets back on its feet.

For now, Jimenez, Neco or the 20 other students enrolled for the “mini term” this semester — a creation inspired by the storm victims’ needs but reflective of a shifting trend in higher education — aren’t sure of how long that will be.

Things are looking dire on the U.S. territory, with some four out of five people still without power and a mere 119 public schools up-and-running. FIU said 667 storm-struck students from the Caribbean, most from Puerto Rico, have signed up for a spring semester. Another 46 have been admitted to Miami Dade College and 45 at the University of Miami.

“We’ll see if Puerto Rico can get better,” Neco said. “Hopefully we can go back and get a degree there.”

Jimenez said his 17-year-old brother was able to return to his senior year at his Catholic private school in the Caguas area of the island, but the storm has already changed his plans for the future. His original plan was to earn a degree in Puerto Rico before moving to the mainland, but now he wants skip straight to attending college here.

That was Mariela Serrano’s plan. She moved to Miami from Puerto Rico in August to start her freshman year at FIU, where she quickly fell in with other Puerto Ricans — or “Boricuas” — and joined their FIU group chat, nicknamed “Los Boris.”

In the chat, she and her peers anxiously watched Maria encroach on their island full of loved ones. They shared notes as they tried to reach family and friends for days after the storm, and they supported each when they found out what they lost.

Serrano’s mother, a dentist, lost her practice and the source of income to pay tuition, when the power was cut in her neighborhood. With money tight, Serrano sent a panicked email to FIU administrators, who responded by giving all Puerto Rican students a refund to the same in-state tuition level new admits had access to.

“It was a relief,” Serrano said. “I sent that money straight to my mom.”

FIU also hired Serrano to answer the hotline for storm-struck students throughout the Caribbean. She helps them apply for classes and for the grants that pay their tuition. And when students show up on campus, it’s Serrano who makes sure they’re added to the group chat, where they can ask questions and connect with their community.

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Childhood friends Ricardo Neco, 19, left, and Omar Jimenez, 20, who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and started classes at Florida International University, on FIU campus on Wednesday, October 26, 2017. C.M. Guerrero cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

For now, those students are happy to have some sense of structure, but they, like FIU administrators, have an eye on the future. Eventually, the students will have to figure out if they’re going to go home to an island economy crippled by debt.

“That’s really an individual decision, but we’re really mindful of the fact that Puerto Rico is very dependent on the talent of their students they’re educating,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said. “We’re very sensitive to making sure there isn’t a brain drain in Puerto Rico.”

The nearly half a million dollars, and climbing, that funds these students’ education, room and board at the university is largely a $350,000 donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, coupled with another $100,000 reallocated form the school’s existing foundation funds and personal pledges from foundation directors for another $12,000. The board intends to raise another $100,000.

In addition, students from East Carolina University pitched in a little over $4,700 to cover food for needy Caribbean students at FIU.

“I’m proud of that,” Rosenberg said. “I think it shows the community’s interest in keeping higher education open to everyone, including these students from Puerto Rico.

“Now we’ve got to make sure we leverage every dollar and make an impact.”

Are you a Puerto Rican student looking to come to FIU?

The university is accepting applications for financial assistance from students who have applied to attend FIU. Grants will be awarded based on need. Additional information is available at https://fiustrong.fiu.edu/

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