Puerto Rican students thankful for help from Penn State Greater Allegheny, other universities
A North Huntingdon accountant's fond memories of the welcome he received at Penn State's McKeesport area campus nearly a decade ago and the campus chancellor's friendship with a former student from Puerto Rico helped fuel new opportunities for seven students from the hurricane-ravaged island.
On Feb. 1, Penn State Greater Allegheny, located high on a hill above McKeesport, welcomed seven students from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez for the spring semester.
Ashley Paramo, 21, will never forget the day she got off the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport. It was 17 degrees and snow was on the ground — the first snow the literatrue student had ever seen.
"And I was the first one to fall on my butt in the snow," she added, smiling at the memory during an interview at the Greater Allegheny Student Community Center.
Fellow Puerto Rico-Mayaguez student Yadeiliz "Jade" Mari, 22, a linguistics major, was on the same flight. The two women said they jumped at the opportunity when Professor Rosita Rivera sent out an email asking if any of her students would be interested in an internship.
"It didn't say where or when, but it's really hard to get internships for an English major. For us to have an opportunity to have an internship and apply our knowledge is really great," Mari said.
The two and five fellow students are living in dorms on campus, working on internships, taking classes and praying for the recovery of their island home.
"We are very grateful for every opportunity they've given us here. They are taking very good care of us," Paramo said.
"They have taken care of us like we are their own," Mari added.
It began when Jacqueline Edmondson, chancellor at the Greater Allegheny campus, reached out frantically in the wake of Hurricane Maria for news of Rivera. Edmondson had stayed in touched with Rivera, one of her former students who had become an English professor at the university located on the western side of the island. Edmondson was worried when she didn't hear from Rivera after the hurricane wrought devastation across the island.
The two eventually connected. When Edmondson learned of the damage the school at Mayaguez had sustained, she and Rivera set wheels turning with the goal of bringing a group of students to Penn State for the spring semester.
"(Rivera) worked very hard. There was a lot of work she did to make sure they were ready to come," Edmondson said.
Call to action
Jesus Torres, a young North Huntingdon CPA and native Puerto Rican, spent two years at Penn State's Greater Allegheny campus. When he learned of the plan, he enlisted the aid of his friends at the Greater Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Torres, 29, who graduated from Penn State, is treasurer of the organization that ultimately agreed to help underwrite the costs of travel and incidentals for the students.
"I stayed in contact with Penn State and got to know Chancellor Edmondson. They reached out to me and told me what they were planning to do to give hope and opportunities to people in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. We have a foundation that provides scholarships for Hispanic students, so I reached out to our board and they decided to help out," Torres said.
Edmondson said the Penn State Greater Allegheny/McKeesport Alumni Society and the campus advisory board also pitched in to help underwrite the effort.
A number of colleges and universities from Florida to Rhodes Island opened their doors to Puerto Rican college students displaced when schools there had to postpone classes in the wake of last fall's hurricanes.
While Greater Allegheny was the only Penn State campus to enroll undergraduates from Puerto Rico after the hurricane, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law also reached out. The Pitt News said 11 law students from the University of Puerto Rico took advantage of a program set up through the American Bar Association to attend Pitt law school last fall.
Farther up the hill in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, Rosana Guernica , a 22-year-old Carnegie Mellon University student from Puerto Rico, led the charge to collect medical supplies and charter a pair of plans to deliver them.
And next week, a group of students from LaRoche College in Pittsburgh's North Hills will head to Puerto Rico to help with continuing clean-up efforts during their spring break.
Paramo and Mari light up when they hear about such efforts. They said things are still far from normal in Puerto Rico five months after the storm.
Although the center and eastern side of the island took the worst brunt of the storm, it did significant damage on the west coast, where Mayaguez is located, as well.
"We had 13 hours of non-stop wind and rain. I will never forget the sound. I thought the wind had a voice," Paramo said.
"The power went out at 1:45 on Sept. 20, and the wind just growled," Mari recalled.
With no electricity or running water, families were left to improvise.
"We lost everything in the refrigerator. We were eating nothing but canned food for a month," Mari said.
Island residents were left to stand in line for gasoline to run generators for upwards of nine hours and were limited to $20 per purchase.
With little access to food or medicine, the women said there were many deaths among those already compromised by ill health or old age.
"There were people who died and they had to be buried in their back yards. We still need a lot of help. There are still many people who do not have power or water," Paramo said.
The women hope and pray help will begin flowing to Puerto Rico again. While some think of the island as an exotic Caribbean nation, Puerto Rico is actually a U.S. territory whose 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens from birth.
"The only thing you can see when you fly out of San Juan airport, the only thing you can see, is blue," Mari said. "It is the FEMA tarps people put up because they don't have any roofs."
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.