New York Students Embark on Puerto Rico Relief Mission

Article and photos by James Campagna

Still struggling with limited transportation and intermittent power since Hurricane Maria hit eight months ago, Puerto Ricans are facing a sweltering summer–and the looming Atlantic hurricane season.

Relief efforts have been continuous on many fronts, but serious problems still plague the island. More than 2,000 of Puerto Rico’s 5,073 miles of roads remain impassable, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Power, though restored to most of the island, is unreliable and blackouts are common.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on March 9 announced a plan to provide SUNY and CUNY students an opportunity to help with the relief effort, while earning academic credit. The two university systems are touting the plan, NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, as a first-of-its kind program.

After a rushed start, the program is getting ready to send its first full cohort to Puerto Rico this month.

Dr. Edwin Melendez, director of Hunter College’s Centro de Puerto Rico
Dr. Edwin Melendez, director of Hunter College’s Centro de Puerto Rico, recently returned from a visit to Puerto Rico and said, “When you walk around the neighborhoods you still see the piles of refrigerators, stoves and old equipment.”

About 2,800 students applied for just 425 spots, which will be divided between CUNY and SUNY students—though the accepted pool now includes slightly more students from SUNY than from CUNY. “All selections have been made and we have a solid waiting list of students who will fill spots in the event a student opts not to participate,” said Melissa Fernandez, who is in charge of student outreach at the CUNY Service Corps. Added Rachel Stephenson, assistant vice chancellor for strategic partnerships for CUNY, in an email: Applicants were “assessed based on their relevant experience, demonstrated commitment to service, professionalism and work ethic.”

UNICEF USA has committed $500,000 for the program, funding that will allow SUNY and CUNY schools to waive their standard tuition fees for the students chosen to participate. “That’s sort of the punch line for recruitment,” said Dr. Edwin Melendez, director of Hunter College’s Centro de Puerto Rico. “It’s a huge incentive for the students to participate.”

The program involves collaboration among multiple state agencies, UNICEF USA, trade groups and nonprofit organizations in New York and Puerto Rico. CUNY’s Service Corps is managing the program for the CUNY students who will participate.

But mounting a university-based relief effort just three months before the start of the summer term has been challenging.  “A lot of the pieces, they’re still figuring out, literally as the program unfolds,” said Karl Koeppel, associate director of Baruch College’s Office of Student Life, in early May.

Indeed, the roll-out of the program was delayed. Although a small cohort of 30 SUNY students went to Puerto Rico at the beginning of June, the first of eight two-week sessions will begin on June 17, according to Fernandez, not May 28 as originally planned. Student cohorts will arrive each Sunday thereafter, throughout the summer, and spend two weeks on the island.

Some Baruch students said they were confused by the communications they received from the program. For example, Aurora Ferrer, 44, a Baruch sophomore, says she was completely unaware that the course was free at the time she applied; she was told that students would be given a small stipend, as well as transportation and room and board. She learned on June 4, a week after the first session was scheduled to begin, that she had not been accepted into the program.

Aurora Ferrer, a student at Baruch College, applied for the Puerto Rico program and wasn't notified that she had been turned down, without explanation, until after the program was scheduled to start.
Aurora Ferrer, a student at Baruch College, applied for the Puerto Rico program and wasn’t notified that she had been turned down, without explanation, until after the program was scheduled to start.

But Fernandez, of the CUNY Service Corps, says that key arrangements, including housing for the students, have now been finalized. The students will be deployed throughout the island, in towns like Loiza, Santurce, Barranquitas, Toa Bajo and Yabucoa. NGO partners on the ground in Puerto Rico have developed emergency plans in the event of another summer hurricane. “This project has been evolving at a break neck speed and things have become more concrete as we got closer to our first departure,” says Fernandez.

Much of the academic course content will be taken from a Puerto Rican history course taught at Lehman College. Teresita Levy, Professor at Lehman College’s Department of Latin America, Latino and Puerto Rican Studies, confirmed that the course content had been finalized and approved by the Faculty Senate of Lehman College shortly before the program was set to begin. Students selected from other CUNY colleges will register for Global Citizenship, Community Engagement, and Service in Latin America and the Caribbean, LAC 270, a Lehman course, using the E-permit system. E-permits allow students to attend courses at CUNY universities other than their own through an approval process.

The students will receive preparation in a boot-camp-style workshop prior to their departure. The Building and Construction Trades Council of New York has agreed to provide experienced tradesmen to help prepare students in the skills they’ll need to complete the rebuilding and recovery projects they’ll be assigned to, according to the Governor’s March 9th announcement. Non-profit organizations in Puerto Rico will be donating building materials for the effort.

Organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico are nervous about the island’s preparedness for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season, which coincides with the period of time the students will be staying in Puerto Rico. “We still have thousands of people without power; power is the biggest issue here,” said Alma Frontera, director of the Foundation for Puerto Rico in San Juan. “You will find schools that need painting, or houses that still need to be rebuilt, ceilings that still need to be repaired.”

However, she cautioned that for the program to have a positive impact, it would have to be “well organized.” That’s no small task for a project conceived just a few months ago and hoping to aid in the recovery of an island with a badly damaged infrastructure.

The initiative comes against the backdrop of election-year politics, at a time when the governor is trying to strengthen his progressive credentials. Winning the support of New York State’s Puerto Rican community–nearly 1 million in New York City and many more in the state’s other large cities–is also important during an election year. Depending on how well the program has been organized on the ground in Puerto Rico, it may have a greater impact on the campaign than on the island.