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'Don't Look Back': Graduates Who Pursued College When Hurricane Maria Hit


One of the most painful aspects of life in Puerto Rico these last few months, we've been told, has been watching people leave. Some 135,000 people left in the six months after Hurricane Maria, according to a Hunter College study. People left for all kinds of reasons, but a critical one was to continue their educations. Connecticut Public Radio's Vanessa de la Torre reports on one family who made that difficult decision, but now there's a payoff - graduation.

VANESSA DE LA TORRE, BYLINE: Graduation's two days away, and Karina Lasalle Arroyo is outside her dorm at Central Connecticut State University. She's here with her mom who flew in from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and they're trying to pack a month's worth of luggage into a rental car.

Are you ready?

KARINA LASALLE ARROYO: Yes, more than ready.

DE LA TORRE: When Hurricane Maria hit the island last September, Lasalle had only a year left of college in Puerto Rico and was thinking ahead to law school. She wants to be a prosecutor. But the storm complicated things big time. Power was out, and all of Lasalle's night classes got rescheduled to the same hour on a Saturday.

K. ARROYO: And they just told me to choose.

DE LA TORRE: So you would have had to choose one class when you needed like...

K. ARROYO: I had five.

DE LA TORRE: Lasalle was stressed, and she didn't know if she'd be able to graduate on time. Then she came across an ad in the newspaper. With the help of donors, a public university in New Britain, Conn., was inviting college students on the island to enroll. Zulma Toro is the school's president. She's originally from Puerto Rico. At a recent event in Hartford, she told evacuees that she was anguished over the devastation back home.


ZULMA TORO: (Speaking Spanish).

DE LA TORRE: Connecticut has a big Puerto Rican community and became a landing spot for thousands of evacuees after the storm. Lasalle is one of them. She didn't have any relatives here like some of the evacuees, but she took up the offer from Central Connecticut State University and transferred from the University of Puerto Rico. At first, her mom, Palmira Arroyo, wasn't sure it was the right move.

PALMIRA ARROYO: I thought it was like a crazy idea. I was like, what? What are you going to do with your studies? I thought it was going to be difficult to be far away from home.

DE LA TORRE: She says she felt mas tranquila, a bit more at ease, when she heard that one of her daughter's friends from Puerto Rico was joining her at Central. Still, Arroyo offered some mom advice. She had to.

P. ARROYO: Don't look back. Think with your mind and not with your heart.

DE LA TORRE: Arroyo knew that her daughter's heart was in Puerto Rico and that she wanted to move back home after the winter term. But if she stayed in Connecticut for the rest of the school year, she'd have enough credits to graduate from college.

ANTONIO GARCIA-LOZADA: (Speaking Spanish).

DE LA TORRE: Professor Antonio Garcia-Lozada is helping Lasalle with luggage. He's one of the faculty advisers for nearly 30 Puerto Rican students who came to Central after the hurricane. He's helped them figure out the right course load, and he also Lasalle a work study job in his office. Garcia says he admires how she and the other evacuees adjusted to college life on the mainland.

GARCIA-LOZADA: What I liked from them was the persistence, really get into the studies. And they want to finish, and they did it.


DE LA TORRE: Two days later, thousands of people descend on a big sports arena in downtown Hartford. When it's Lasalle's turn to cross the commencement stage...



DE LA TORRE: ...Toro, the college president, gives her a big hug. After it's over, Palmira Arroyo says her daughter's graduation feels like a validation.

P. ARROYO: I'm so happy. I'm very excited. I see that, well, I think I did a good job.

DE LA TORRE: The next morning, mother and daughter have a plane to catch to Puerto Rico. Lasalle can't wait to get back home, but this isn't a last goodbye. She'll be back in Connecticut this fall as an intern for U.S. Senator Chris Murphy. For NPR News, I'm Vanessa de la Torre in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vanessa de la Torre