“Shelter from the storm”: Tulane opens doors to Puerto Rican students, organizes relief efforts


Courtesy of Jacqueline Wagner

Hurricane Irma devastated St. Martin when it hit on Sept. 6. Students from St. Martin, along with students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, can apply to enroll at Tulane for the Spring 2018 semester.

Seven hurricanes have ravaged the Atlantic region since August, with four of them registered as Category 4 or higher. According to recent estimates, the combined damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria totals as much as $385 billion. For comparison, the 2005 hurricane season that included Hurricane Katrina totaled $143 billion in damages.

In the wake of this devastation, many parts of the Tulane community have been working together on relief initiatives including supply drives, service trips and the welcoming of displaced students onto campus.

Less than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Director of Admission Jeff Schiffman announced in a blog post that Tulane will offer enrollment for students affected by storms in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Martin. Puerto Rican students can enroll at the tuition rates of their current universities for Tulane’s spring semester.

The Tulane administration reached out to leaders at the University of Puerto Rico to discuss ways the institutions could collaborate and help both the University of Puerto Rico and its students. Communication was difficult, as internet access in Puerto Rico is limited for the time being.

“It began when I sent multiple emails to the leadership of the University of Puerto Rico just saying we want to help,” Robin Forman, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, said. “… To some extent, they said, ‘Well, you at Tulane have more experience with this than we do. Tell us what [you] think would be helpful.’ We kind of met in the middle a little bit.”

The admission team designed the application process to be simple and create minimal burden for students dealing with the effects of the storms. Applicants must provide a brief application and copies of their transcripts, either as official documents or photos of transcripts.

According to Schiffman’s blog, if these students enroll, they will be considered “full-time, non-degree-seeking guest students in the Newcomb-Tulane Undergraduate College.”

When Katrina devastated Tulane and the city of New Orleans in 2005, many universities around the nation took in Tulane students when they were forced to relocate. 

“Even today, we still have volunteer groups who come to New Orleans, and I very much see them as an extension of the relationships built in the years of recovery and also the widespread awareness about some of the challenges New Orleans was facing,”  Ben Brubaker, program manager of the Center for Public Service, said. “My hope is that volunteers will give the same effort to areas like Houston, South Florida, St. Martin, Puerto Rico and other nations impacted so they have the support they need for years to come.”

Students are also contributing to relief initiatives. Sophomore Gabriela Mercado, GENTE member and coordinator of Hurricane Maria relief fundraising, discussed the conditions at Puerto Rican universities, describing her cousin’s school as “foldable chairs in a classroom with a tent over it.”

Students like Mercado’s cousin are looking to other options like Tulane while their universities are rebuilding.

“She’s trying to come here to the states and start school while her school starts running,” Mercado said. “So I told her about Tulane, but she’s looking into it and other schools in Florida. To not study for a semester or two is ridiculous.”

Students are seeking ways to continue their educations and graduate on time with their intended majors. It is not always the case, however, that Tulane offers the courses necessary to make that possible, as many students are seeking specialized courses.

According to Forman, responses to the program, particularly from Puerto Rican students, have been enthusiastic. Around 400 students have started their applications.

Lack of electricity and internet access could, however, present obstacles for students looking to attend other universities. According to CNN, nearly 80 percent of the island is still without power, and 70 percent of cellular antennae are out of commission. Some students may not even be aware of their options at Tulane.

“[In Puerto Rico] more people lost power than water,” Adriana Amador, sophomore and GENTE treasurer, said. “But it’s been coming back and forth, and then it leaves again, so people who don’t have generators, which is probably most of them, have really been struggling with that.”

The issue is particularly personal for students like Mercado and Amador, both of whom have family on the island and have taken relief efforts into their own hands.

“The day after the hurricane we had no idea how our parents were, how all our families were,” said Amador. “My best friend didn’t know if her grandma was alive four weeks later.”

The students spearheaded Puerto Rico relief efforts through GENTE and Students With Puerto Rico, a national organization of Puerto Rican students studying in the U.S. They raised roughly $1,000 through donations and sales of bracelets on McAlister Avenue.

“We didn’t even have to tell people to come, they just came to us,” Amador said. “So I saw another side of Tulane life. I saw the humanitarian side.”

A Tulane alumnus donated 1,000 bracelets to the students, all of which Mercado plans on selling. The donations will go directly to United for Puerto Rico, an initiative started by Puerto Rican First Lady Beatriz Rosselló to raise funds for those affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. 

Khristyan Trejo, Undergraduate Student Government vice president of student life, recognizes this is the beginning of efforts to help those affected by Maria. Even after students return from their guest semester, they will still feel the effects of the hurricane.

“I do think it’s important to kind of at least start conversations in regards to how we can assist Puerto Rico and places that get affected by natural disasters,” Trejo said.

Maria was the third hurricane to hit the Atlantic region this fall, following Hurricane Irma. The Tulane community is continuing support for those affected by Harvey and Irma through ongoing relief efforts.

The Hurricane Irma Relief Fund was established by students to aid survivors in St. Martin, an island in the Caribbean. After spending time in St. Martin on a Center for Public Service learning trip this past summer and later hearing about the damages caused by Hurricane Irma, the students decided to get involved in restoring the community.

“We became very close with the culture and people of the Caribbean,” sophomore Raphael Miller, co-chair for the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund, said. “After Hurricane Irma destroyed 95 percent of the island that we grew so fond of, we immediately thought of ways to get involved and help with relief.”

Because of the hurricane devastation in the past weeks, the organizers of the fund decided to expand their efforts to assist other areas affected by the storms, such as St. Martin.

In partnership with CPS, the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund set up donation boxes around campus, focusing on collecting essential products to help rebuild affected communities. CPS, Community Action Council for Tulane University Students and Tulane Alternative Breaks are also coordinating relief plans to raise funds, support supply drives and organize service trips to assist key areas in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean.

“Once the drive is finished at the end of October, the supplies will be sent to multiple Caribbean islands to help supply this isolated and destroyed region of the world with supplies we so easily forget are necessities,” Miller said.

Many campus organizations and programs have undertaken similar relief efforts in the wake of Harvey and Irma. The Tulane School of Medicine organized a medical response team to provide basic emergency medical services to Harvey survivors at a community center in Beaumont, Texas.

The team was joined by Lee Gary, Tulane adjunct assistant professor for international development studies, who served as the logistics director for the community center. 

Brubaker said he believes that regardless of the type of service with which Tulane continues to assist Puerto Rico and areas affected by the hurricane, it is crucial to do so in an intentional manner that builds community and solidarity.

“It is important … to help our students and volunteers think critically about how to be in solidarity with our neighboring communities as they work through the recovery process,” Brubaker said. “We need to pay special attention to working in partnership with historically marginalized and vulnerable populations and make sure our efforts are responsive and accountable to the needs of community members, and ensure we are not supporting the exploitation or displacement of the communities and cultures in the area.”

Students looking to help disaster-stricken areas are encouraged to donate and volunteer with Project HOPE, Federal Emergency Management Agency and AmeriCorps.

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