PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It sounded like a scam at first. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Brown University was offering to pick up 40 of the island’s top students in a private jet and shuttle them to the Ivy League school to study for a year. And it would all be free.
Coral Murphy was suspicious, but she applied anyway. Even after the acceptance email arrived, she still had doubts. Reality set in only after she got to the airport and boarded the jet, where students were served sparkling water and sandwiches garnished with edible flowers.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” said Murphy, 20, a junior in journalism who is now in her second term at Brown. “I’m like, ‘Where am I?”‘
Murphy is among hundreds of Puerto Ricans who have come to colleges on the U.S. mainland following the devastation wrought by Maria, often drawn by offers of free or discounted tuition from schools hoping to help students continue their education while the island recovers.
Most of the offers are for one or two semesters, with the expectation that students will return to their home universities in Puerto Rico. But some educators in the U.S. territory worry that some of the Caribbean island’s brightest students won’t come back to an already beleaguered public university system.
“Some of these programs have targeted the cream of our crop, the best we have,” said Don Walicek, who teaches English and linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico. “Will they ever come back to Puerto Rico?”
Even before the hurricane, enrolment had been falling at the University of Puerto Rico, where students went on strike last year protesting deep budget cuts. When the system’s main campus at Rio Piedras reopened after Maria, more than 900 students — roughly 6 per cent of the student body — did not return.
Those who relocated are among thousands of other Puerto Ricans leaving the island, where electricity is still in short supply amid a grueling recovery process.
The tuition offers from mainland universities are modeled on programs created in 2005 to help U.S. students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. But Walicek and two other professors wrote an open letter in November noting that, unlike schools in New Orleans that closed for months, the University of Puerto Rico reopened just five weeks after Hurricane Maria. The exodus of students has reduced enrolment, forcing the cancellation of some courses.
Officials behind the assistance programs say …read more