It’s lunchtime at Central Connecticut State University and 10 students converge on their usual spot in the dining hall. They start talking about the food — and it becomes clear that they don’t love the rice. They explain that it’s not as seasoned as the homemade arroz in Puerto Rico.
So pizza it is.
“I literally eat pizza every day,” said Marivelisse Acosta, 19, a freshman at CCSU.
Acosta used to attend the University of Puerto Rico. Then came the hurricane in September, and for two weeks she didn’t know if her sister was alive.
Instead of San Juan, Acosta now lives in New Britain, Connecticut.
Acosta loves Puerto Rico so much that she got not one, but two flags for her dorm room. She remembers how the island was like a beautiful green dot in the middle of the ocean. But these days, she said people are drowning in hopelessness. She hears it in their voices, like her sister’s, when she calls home.
“I can’t handle that, I can’t live like that,” Acosta said. “I need to secure my future, so that I can do something for myself, and eventually, for the people in Puerto Rico.”
For now, that means finishing her education.
In the storm’s aftermath, this Connecticut university opened its doors to Puerto Rican evacuees who wanted to take classes in the short term.
Six months after Hurricane Maria, many of those students are getting used to life in New England and now face big questions about their future: Do they stay — or return to the island they call home?
Academically, the Puerto Rican students are doing well, the university said.
But their stay was supposed to be temporary: Eight, intensive weeks of taking classes and earning college credits while the island recovers. Central Connecticut State called it Airbridge, a goodwill program that had support from donors. Students had their costs covered through the winter, and now they’re taking out loans for the spring.
Professor Serafin Mendez helped recruit students by placing an ad in El Nuevo Día, a Puerto Rican newspaper.
“I found it truly surprising that so many of them decided to stay here,” Mendez said.
At first, 22 students came over from the University of Puerto Rico, said Lisa Bigelow, CCSU’s director of institutional advancement. Now there are 26. A few left after completing the initial eight weeks, then new students arrived for spring.
Most of them are women majoring in the sciences, and they’ve all had to adapt to doing coursework in English, their second language. Professor Antonio Garcia-Lozada, the university ombudsman at CCSU, said staffers have advised them on classes they need for their majors, but “we never lowered the bar.”
One of the evacuees, Karina Lasalle, thought she’d move back home after Christmas. She’s 21 and wants to be a prosecutor someday.
“It was hard for my mom to know that I was going to stay here,” Lasalle said. “She was expecting me to get back in January, so she was kind of sad.”
With all the damage in Puerto Rico, Lasalle said graduating on time seemed impossible there. So her mom is making plans to visit her in May — that’s when Lasalle will graduate with a bachelor’s degree from CCSU. After that, she wants to move home.
But not Lasalle’s roommate, Joandra Vazquez. She’ll be graduating with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. Before the hurricane, the two were on the same track and field team at the University of Puerto Rico, running the 400 meters.
While Lasalle wants to go home, Vazquez is in no rush to leave. She’s applying to pharmacy school in Connecticut.
“I wasn’t prepared to stay here,” said Vazquez, 23. “But my parents told me … ‘The opportunity comes and you have to take it.’”
The Puerto Rican evacuees said opportunity is why eight weeks have turned into several months, or more. It also helps that they’ve become a tight group, leaning on each for emotional and cultural support. The young women live in the same dormitory, too, so there are late-night talks.
“We are so close with each other,” Vazquez said.
“We have dinner and lunch and breakfast together,” added Acosta, the freshman from San Juan. “It’s like, ‘Hey, are you up? Let’s go have breakfast,’ and see you a bunch of people walking in and sitting down.”
During a brisk walk to the dining hall, Rene Rivera considered his future. He’s here at Central Connecticut State with his younger brother, his cousin Vazquez, and Acosta, his girlfriend of a year. They all came after the hurricane.
“Yeah, I think I might stay,” Rivera said. “I like the university. I don’t like the weather, though. Like, if I move it’s because of the weather. It’s too cold here.”
The students said CCSU has tried hard to acclimate them to college life on the East Coast. And while there’s not a whole lot they can do about the seasoning on the cafeteria rice, the university did provide them with winter clothes as temperatures plummeted. Acosta and others still talk about their shopping spree at Burlington Coat Factory, a trip financed by a generous alum.
In Puerto Rico, they were used to nonstop summer.
“And over here it’s like three jackets, a coat, two pants, boots,” Acosta said. “At the end of the day, it’s for our own good, so I don’t mind switching my sandals for boots to get my degree.”
After she gets that degree, Acosta isn’t sure what she’ll do. But one thing she’s certain about is that she’s not ready to go back to the island.
This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.