When Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico last fall, they left billions of dollars in damage in their wake, upending the lives of people across the island.
For Yanitza Cruz Crespo and Gabriel Manzano Nieves, students at University of Puerto Rico, the hurricanes meant pursuing their studies without water, electricity or functioning classrooms.
To help those affected by the hurricane, the University of Chicago launched a series of initiatives to allow members of Puerto Rico’s academic and artistic communities to continue their work. Cruz Crespo and Manzano Nieves are among the nine undergraduates who are joining the University this spring, along with four graduate students, four visiting faculty and two visiting artists who are receiving support from UChicago that includes tuition, room and board, and other expenses.
“Now that I’m here, I don’t have to worry about things like power or a place to study—all things that became major struggles back home. Instead I can focus on my work here as a student and gathering the tools to return home stronger,” said Cruz Crespo, whose family lost the roof of its home in the storm and was without water for three months and power for five months. “The environment here invites you to study, and I think that’s really nice because we went months after the hurricane without somewhere to study.”
A fourth-year student majoring in information & journalism at University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, Cruz Crespo said the UChicago program has shown her new ways to approach her research and coursework.
“I enjoy the way the professors teach our classes. It’s intensive, but I think it will improve my way of studying. It’s really different from what I’ve experienced in the past,” she said.
Manzano Nieves, a fourth-year student majoring in the history of the Americas, also found connections between UChicago’s course offerings and his studies at University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez.
“I’m interested in the processes and end products of colonization and decolonization. Each affects the way people see themselves and how they view people from different tiers of civilization,” said Manzano Nieves. “The courses I’m taking at UChicago complement each other and my path of study. When I read each syllabus, I was instantly attracted to each of them.”
Before beginning his studies, Manzano Nieves completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, working on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships that took him across the globe. After a final deployment on the USS America, he realized he wanted to attend University of Puerto Rico and pursue a career in law.
After the hurricanes hit, he left his studies to help his family and others recover and confront other challenges like gas shortages, lack of drinking water and access to banking systems.
“The roads were desolate, and trees were down everywhere. It looked like a war zone,” Manzano Nieves said. “The green of the island was gone, and you could suddenly see parts of the island that you’d never noticed before. Many people say the hurricanes unmasked a lot of poverty that was hidden away from sight.”
While the Mayagüez campus was being rebuilt, Manzano Nieves established a GoFundMe campaign to provide supplies like water-purifying pills and flashlights for those who suffered the most damage. After he had spent most of his resources helping everyone but himself, the program at UChicago was a welcome relief. After completing Spring Quarter at UChicago, Manzano Nieves plans return to Puerto Rico and graduate in December.
“I hope to bring back the knowledge from the classes I am taking, which are interesting and go very deep into their specific topics. I find it is a completely different academic experience that I wouldn’t be able to get back home,” he said. “As I prepare for law school, this opportunity will give me a better idea of how other universities might think.”
Cruz Crespo said the UChicago program will change the way she and her family look back on Hurricane Maria.
“Maria was a disaster and is still a disaster in Puerto Rico, but we also see it another way because it opened a door for me to grow in other ways and to contribute to the recovery of my country,” she said. “It’s helped us realize that something good can come out of the hurricane.”
This story originally appeared on UChicago News site.