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Stacie Mann, who organized a knitting project to make hats, mittens and scarves for students from Puerto Rico, demonstrates her technique as her colleagues knit their own projects at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s library.

U of Puerto Rico students prep to take refuge at Cornell

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

Andrea Valdés Valderrama, a student at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, at the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., during her internship.

Sixty-two students from Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) are getting ready to arrive on campus by mid-January. They’re choosing classes and – almost as importantly – buying winter coats and long underwear online.

“I’m always refreshing the Ithaca page and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so cold!’” said sophomore José De Jesús Szendrey, who’s been checking the weather app on his phone.

For one semester, UPR students will leave behind the devastation of Hurricane Maria to study at Cornell. While several universities have offered UPR students in-state tuition, Cornell is one of only four offering one semester of free tuition, room and board; the others are Tulane University, New York University and Brown University.

“Providing academic refuge to these students is a natural for Cornell – an effort to do what we can for students in a devastated part of our country. The success of this effort is also a testament to the spirit of our entire community, however,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff. “Faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni and Ithaca community members have come together to make this happen. It is a testament to the generosity and optimism of our greater university community.”

It’s been nearly four months since the storm. At the close of December, officials in Puerto Rico estimated about 45 percent of the population were still without power, according to The New York Times. Those lucky enough to have electricity often struggle with power outages. “At any time, I could be two to three hours without electricity,” Szendrey said. “It’s a very weak system right now.”

For quite a while at UPR’s Carolina campus, computers, water and even bathrooms were unavailable.

“Professors had to set out plastic tables to lecture students in the hallways,” said Szendrey, whose house was flooded and whose mother became unemployed and was forced to spend the family’s savings post-Maria. “Admissions was often closed. The registrar was closed. Professors were absent. It was really a mess.”

But Szendrey, who studies public relations and communication, never missed a class. “My mother always taught me that when things get hard, that’s when you have to be strongest,” he said.

"Faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni and Ithaca community members have come together to make this happen. It is a testament to the generosity and optimism of our greater university community."

Provost Michael Kotlikoff

Andrea Valdés Valderrama, a senior majoring in English literature, said her Mayagüez campus was “a disaster zone” post-Maria, including a building closed due to asbestos contamination. She remembers thinking the semester was lost, that classes would be canceled or postponed for so long UPR-M would lose its accreditation.

“The trauma lingers, and the hurricane comes up at least once a day, by name or consequence,” Valdés Valderrama said. “This opportunity [at Cornell] means I can go through a semester without the fear of not completing my assignments due to a random power outage or the loss of internet service.”

The Ithaca campus is gearing up to give the UPR students a warm welcome. Knitters from around the university, and alumni and friends from as far away as Utah, have made hundreds of hats, mittens and scarves for them.

“When you hear about events like a devastating hurricane, you want to help out,” said Stacie Mann, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s K-12 education resource coordinator, who spearheaded the knitting initiative. “This is a way to directly help individuals. This is something tangible that we can do.”

Hundreds of handmade hats, mittens, scarves and cowls have been knit by members of the Cornell community for incoming students from the Universidad de Puerto Rico.

Added knitter Anne Klingensmith, a gift processing assistant at the lab: “I have a college-age student and she’s going out into the world. I hope that she can depend on the kindness of strangers. It’s doing for them what I hope somebody might do for my daughter.”

There’s been an outpouring of financial support as well.

Nearly $58,000 – far exceeding the $40,000 goal – has been raised via the Cornell-UPR Interuniversity Relief Program, which will end Jan. 18. The funds will help defray students’ expenses such as books and supplies, winter clothing, health insurance, food and transportation. Alumni, staff, faculty, students and friends of the university have participated. They include former trustee Armando Olivera ’72, who visited the island and saw the hurricane’s effects firsthand.

“I am proud that Cornell stepped up and opened its doors to these students,” he said. “It will be a very long recovery and hopefully by helping these students we will, in some way, help the people of Puerto Rico.”

And the Student Assembly has donated $10,000.

Cornell students have stepped up in other ways. The Puerto Rican Students’ Association has recruited 61 undergraduates, 35 of whom are fluent in Spanish, to mentor the newcomers. And 15 to 20 Latino students studying the sciences and engineering have also volunteered to mentor and tutor.

The administration is doing its part, too. In addition to free tuition, it is providing free meal plans and housing, primarily in North Campus and West Campus residence halls, said Glenn Altschuler, M.A. ’73, Ph.D. ’76, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions (SCESS), through which the students are enrolled. “Many of these students will have roommates, so they’ll connect with somebody straight away,” he said.

Residential life staff members have designed a special orientation session for the students, who will also participate in January Orientation for incoming students. The colleges have assigned each student a faculty adviser or dean to ensure they are taking appropriate classes and have an academic point of contact.

“At a time in which there seems to be disorder, conflict and natural disaster in the world, this is an instance of a community coming together almost spontaneously to do good for people who, through no fault of their own, are facing severe challenges,” Altschuler said. “The community response tells us something about the goodwill and generosity that is available to be tapped.”

Valdés Valderrama says she is deeply grateful for that generosity.

“The overwhelming support and patience that people like [SCESS registrar] Mr. Eric Lavin have exhibited toward us have been a true comfort,” Valdés Valderrama said, “and I can only hope to fulfill their and my expectations for this semester.”