In an effort to assist those impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria that hit Puerto Rico last September, The Catholic University of America announced in the fall that it would be accepting up to 40 students currently enrolled in colleges or universities in Puerto Rico as visiting students for the spring 2018 semester. After the hurricanes hit the island, many students found that their colleges were closed for the remainder of the semester, and were uncertain if they would be reopening for the spring.

Hurricane Irma skirted Puerto Rico on Sept. 7, leaving about one million people without power. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island, destroying almost 90,000 homes and seriously damaging nearly 390,000 homes. After the two hurricanes, nearly 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico were without power. Six months later, seven percent of the island’s residents still lacked electricity.                                                                                

Following the lead of Tulane University in New Orleans, Catholic University decided that opening their doors to Puerto Rican students would be the best way to heed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ call to help those affected by the hurricane.

“Throughout the fall semester, our university community has provided assistance to our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico and to our students with ties there,” said John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America. “Inspired by the example of Pope Francis and our bishops, we wanted to make a more significant impact by offering our support during the spring semester. We believe the best support we can provide is a welcoming community where impacted students can continue their academic pursuits.”

The main goal of accepting the students is to allow them to stay on the path to graduation, because “if they lost an entire academic year, it can be really hard to get back into the academic groove,” said Chris Lydon, the vice president for enrollment management and marketing at The Catholic University of America.

For the spring semester, seven students from Puerto Rico are attending Catholic University. For two of those students who were accepted to have a tuition-free semester there, this opportunity not only granted them a reprieve from damage of Hurricane Maria – it also allowed them to start pursuing their dreams.

Desiree Cordero Rios

When Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico in September, Desiree Cordero Rios was with her family at their home in the countryside, where her father works as a farmer.

The family had put up protections in all of the windows inside their home, and they could only see through one opening in the barriers. They took turns peaking through the window to see the 215 mph winds that were blowing through their neighborhood. Water was flooding into the house, and the family members would take buckets to collect it and pour it into the shower drain. They were stuck in their house, only able to watch as trees fell around them.

“It was desperate,” she said. “…We were seeing how everything was getting destroyed.”

She remembers clearly waking up at 6 a.m. the morning after the storm and trying to call her boyfriend, only to find that there was no phone signal. She and her family had no way of communicating with other family members to find out how they were or to tell others that they were okay.

The vegetables and plantains on her father’s farm were ruined, and many of the chickens and rabbits died.

“We were shocked,” she said. “…We knew it was going to be hard, but not that hard.”

When she went outside for the first time, there were no trees, and she could see houses that she had never seen before. She and many others were without electricity or water, but thankfully her dad had stored up water, and they had a generator that they used part of the time. Her family did not regain access to water until December or electricity until January.

Gas was in such high demand for generators that Cordero Rios and her family woke up at 4 a.m. to be at the gas station at 5 a.m. and still had to wait for eight hours in line. Even then, they were only allowed to buy $30 worth of gas.

Cordero Rios said it seemed like they were living in a different time period, where in order to talk to someone she had to go visit and see them in person, instead of picking up her cell phone. Luckily, that was easy for her to do with her family, since many of her aunts, uncles and cousins live in the same neighborhood.

“We were always together,” said Cordero Rios, referring to her family. They would gather together every night, alternating between different houses. 

Cordero Rios was only about a month into her freshman year at the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla when the storm hit. It was unclear if and when the school was going to reopen, so she began to think, “What about my future if they don’t open?” she said.

After they regained phone service, Cordero Rios called her aunt who lives in Maryland and got a plane ticket to go stay with her. Cordero Rios had thought about someday moving to the United States mainland, and this hurricane pushed her to make that dream a reality.

On Dec. 15, she learned that she was admitted to The Catholic University of America to study there in the spring semester, with tuition waived.

Now, Cordero Rios is living in a residence hall on campus and is studying marketing. She goes to Mass in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sundays, and said she loves looking up at all of the paintings in the domes. She is currently in the process of transferring to Catholic University for the rest of her college career.

“The education here is awesome,” she said, adding that living here is making her more independent and improving her grasp of the English language, which she feels will help her in the future. She hopes to someday start her own digital marketing company to help other companies succeed in their industries.

Back in Puerto Rico, still not everyone has electricity, “but they are helping each other,” she said, recalling how right after the hurricane, everyone worked together to clear off the roads.

After seeing how radically the hurricane changed life for so many in Puerto Rico, including many people who lost their homes, “I appreciate more things,” she said, adding that she and her family are grateful that the damage they experienced was not worse.

Gabriel Agosto

Like Cordero Rios, Gabriel Agosto was just beginning his freshman year of college at the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamón when Hurricane Maria hit. Agosto’s mom was working as a wedding coordinator at a Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico, which was completely devastated by the storm. Afterward, she was transferred to a Hilton Hotel in Washington, the same city in which Agosto had applied and was later accepted to attend Catholic University.

This is a particularly exciting opportunity for Agosto, because it is allowing him to study what he is really interested in – drama. He was studying marketing in Puerto Rico, because there aren’t very many drama programs there, but his dream is to become an actor.

“I am really grateful that I got the opportunity to come here and study,” he said.

In his senior year of high school, Agosto and several other students in his drama class made a movie honoring one of their favorite teachers who had died suddenly.

“The first time we watched [the movie] we were all so surprised and amazed at what we did,” he said.

The movie was 18 minutes long, which was above the time limit for the movie festival that they were entering it into. But the group decided together not to cut anything because it had too much meaning, Agosoto said.

“This movie was not made for winning,” he said. “We did it because he left a legacy for us.”

Their movie ended up having the most sold tickets at the festival, and won awards for the best musical direction, the best actor, and the best supporting actor, which was Agosto. It was also voted “gem of the festival.”

“That night there cemented in my mind that I was capable of doing anything,” he said.

In order to pursue this dream, Agosoto wants to keep studying at Catholic University, and said he could see himself graduating from the school.

Agosoto is not Catholic, but said he feels very welcome at Catholic University.

“I love how just because it is a Catholic University, I don’t need to be Catholic to stay here,” he said.

The Spanish Club at the school recently invited him and other Puerto Rican students to their meeting, which gave him a bit of a taste of the culture from back home.

“Puerto Rico is home, it will always be home,” said Agosto.

Agosto said he misses his friends and family, as well as the culture, food and weather in Puerto Rico, although he was excited at the prospect of seeing snow for the first time this winter.

“Our island is so full of plant life, so green,” he said, noting that after the hurricane, there was no more green. After a few months, the green started to grow back, and “it felt like we were coming back,” he said. “…After everything that’s happened, it’s good to know we’re still picking ourselves up.”