Visiting Puerto Rican college students support Hurricane Maria victims from Juneau

UAS National Student Exchange students Eva Collazo-Montanez, Nikyshaliz Velasquez and Gabriela Hernandez-Ramirez pose with the supplies they gathered to send home to Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Eva Collazo-Montanez)

University of Alaska Southeast National Student Exchange students Eva Collazo-Montanez, Nikyshaliz Velasquez and Gabriela Hernandez-Ramirez pose with the supplies they gathered to send home to Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Eva Collazo-Montanez)

Three Puerto Rican students came to study at the University of Alaska Southeast this fall in search of an adventure.

But their semester abroad turned into a stressful ordeal after Hurricane Maria left them cut off from their families.

What do you do when disaster strikes at home, but you’re more than 4,000 miles away?

That’s the question three visiting students to UAS faced this fall.

Their school, University of Puerto Rico Humacao, was severely damaged when Hurricane Maria hit the island in September.

Every year, students from other parts of the United States travel to Juneau as part of the National Student Exchange program. That includes students from U.S. territory Puerto Rico.

“I’m studying marine biology and I wanted a total different environment. I like humpback whales and we can see them in Puerto Rico, but not as much as we can see them here,” said Gabriela Hernandez-Ramirez, who arrived in Juneau on Aug. 24 along with Eva Collazo-Montanez and Nikyshaliz Velasquez.

Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

When it hit, Hurricane Irma had just skirted the island weeks before. Collazo-Montanez said they felt relieved when Irma was less destructive than predicted. Then they woke up Sept. 20 to radio silence.

“All of the media was out because there was no power so we couldn’t like see what was happening until like two days after that we were hearing stuff and trying to communicate but there was no communication,” Collazo-Montanez said.

It took almost two weeks for them to reach their families.

Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.

Their homes were mostly safe, although Velasquez said her family’s garage was destroyed. But now their loved ones are dealing with the aftermath.

“My family doesn’t have electricity yet, and water, anything,” Velasquez said.

Power was knocked out for the entire island.

FEMA says about 60 percent still has no electricity. The biggest problems now are access to clean water, food and health care.

“We’re just so concerned that people are dying because they’re not getting medical attention, because they can’t get to the nearest hospital, or the nearest hospital is closed because they don’t have any electricity,” Collazo-Montanez said.

Classes at the Humacao campus were suspended for a month. Students returned Oct. 30, but with millions of dollars in damages and limited electricity, most classes are being held in large tents.

“I’ve heard from a lot of friends that the heat, it’s a lot,” Collazo-Montanez said. “They’re suffering from heat strokes, they cannot concentrate. Professors are trying to give their classes normally like they did it back when there was no hurricane, but they cannot do it.”

Feeling homesick and helpless from so far away, the students wanted to find a way to help. They held a bake sale.

“We had brownies, cupcakes, everything. We made some and people of the community also brought pastries to us,” Hernandez-Ramirez said. “We were like three hours in the cafeteria, and many people went and they helped us.”

They also collected supplies like medical masks, batteries and flashlights.

UAS Assistant Professor of Marine Fisheries Michael Navarro helped them figure out how to fly five free bags of supplies on Alaska Airlines to Florida.

Collazo-Montanez accompanied them and met her mother at the airport, who brought it all back to the island.

In total, they gathered about 600 pounds of supplies and $700 in donations.

Now, the visiting students are faced with what to do once the semester ends.

Do they return to Humacao, where facilities are limited and the semester has been pushed back to January? Do they transfer to Florida International University, which is taking in Puerto Rico students whose schools are damaged? Or, is there another option?

UAS Academic Exchange and Study Abroad Coordinator Marsha Squires has worked with the three of them since they first decided to come study in Alaska.

Known as “Mama Marsha” to many in the exchange program, she makes it her job to help students feel at home on campus.

When Maria struck, she took that role even more seriously.

“It wasn’t just me, there was a lot of faculty and other staff that were very supportive of the students, knowing that they were stressed, and still are really,” she said. “This isn’t something that just happens overnight and then it’s over with.”

Squires is working to help them stay.

UAS will provide financial assistance to allow Hernandez-Ramirez to continue studying there in the spring. Collazo-Montanez also is considering staying.

What is it about Juneau that three young women from a tropical Caribbean island like so much, exactly?

“Whale watching,” Hernandez-Ramirez said.

“Yeah, I love the mountains and the snow,” Collazo-Montanez replied.

“The glacier” is a favorite for Velasquez.

The three of them took a backpacking class earlier in the semester.

For two of them, it was the first time they’d ever seen snow. But are they looking forward to when the snow really begins?

“I hate the cold but I’m really waiting for it,” Hernandez-Ramirez said.

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