Communications major Marivelisse Acosta attends Central Connecticut State University. But on Wednesday night, she stood in the cafeteria of Hartford’s Bulkeley High School, contemplating what to say as a mentor to the school’s displaced students from Puerto Rico.
“You’re so much better than what you’ve gone through,” said Acosta, 19, herself a Puerto Rican evacuee. “So … don’t stay in the storm, don’t stay in the dirt. Go forward.”
But who knows? Acosta said. The younger students might also teach her a few things.
“Today I’m going to be mentoring them,” she said, “but tomorrow they could be mentoring me.”
After Hurricane Maria last fall, at least 70 evacuees enrolled at Bulkeley in the city’s South End, including juniors and seniors on the verge of graduating high school. Meanwhile, a couple of towns over, Central Connecticut State in New Britain welcomed about 30 students from the University of Puerto Rico whose college careers were in limbo after the catastrophic storm.
Those college students have since settled into their New England campus and have been tapped for a new partnership that the Hartford school system and Central Connecticut State are calling the Ambassadors program — evacuees mentoring evacuees.
The inaugural reception happened on a rainy evening this week in the Bulkeley cafeteria, where staffers laid out a full spread of Puerto Rican food and even a cake that looked like the island’s flag. Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said they wanted to introduce a pathway to college for the new juniors and seniors at Bulkeley who survived Maria.
“This is not about our students not being capable, this is not about our students being limited,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “They have the drive and they have the ability.”
Among the guests was CCSU President Zulma Toro, who came with an entourage of top university officials that included the admissions director. Addressing the younger evacuees and their parents in Spanish, Toro told them that she, too, is Puerto Rican and made a pitch for them to consider her university. It would be like another family to them, she said.
The Ambassadors program is “a way to recruit students,” Toro said later. “But at the same time, it’s a way to expand access to higher education to those students who otherwise would not have access.”
University officials said they have raised money to fund the program, including stipends for the mentors. For their first meet-and-greet, they sat with the high school students at a long cafeteria table and gave them insider info on classes, dining plans, and life in the residential dorms.
Afterward, Bulkeley senior Yeicy Alejandro said she wants to stay in the area and maybe attend Central Connecticut State. She came from Puerto Rico in November.
“Very happy,” Alejandro, 17, said. “I’m in love. I want to stay here.”
Like the other mentors, 22-year-old Valeria Arana said she plans to visit the high school about twice a week. And there’s talk of possibly hosting the Bulkeley students during a college-prep program on the university campus this summer.
“I’m going to take summer classes, so I’m excited to just drag them with me so they can just experience the college-level class with professors,” said Arana, an aspiring veterinarian who expects to graduate later this year. “So yeah, it’s going to be cool.”
Officials from Hartford Public Schools and Central Connecticut State said the Ambassadors program is just the beginning, and that they plan to develop a deeper partnership to bring more Hartford students to college.
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, Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.