Petra Rodriguez ‘21, a first-year student from Puerto Rico, has only been able to contact her family twice since Hurricane Irma devastated her island. On top of the average freshman student’s struggle to adjust to life at college in a new place, she has had to grapple with being separated from her family in their biggest time of need and a significant cultural transition.
Being so far away and knowing your family is in a crisis is a nearly impossible situation that many cannot imagine. “It’s really devastating. You are somewhere else, you feel useless because you can’t do anything,” Rodriguez said. “You wish you were there, no matter how bad it is.” She reports struggling with the fact that she is here with the privilege of safety, food and water, while her family is left rationing a small supply of water for days at a time, with supermarkets completely empty of food.
While she desperately wants to go home and be with them, another part of her knows that the home she grew up in is no longer the same, and it never will be. Her bedroom was flooded, ruining any possessions she did not bring to school with her. Her neighborhood will be completely different, many of her neighbors’ homes now completely unlivable, forcing them to start over – most likely somewhere else.
One might expect her to be furious – angry at the United States government for not stepping up, for not paying the attention they should to millions of American citizens in a crisis. However she doesn’t blame the US. “There isn’t a lot of knowledge of Puerto Rico, I don’t blame them. They don’t see how close we really are, it has a lot to do with the education on it. The president isn’t helping the situation either,” she said.
She does, however, bring up her frustrations of how people misconceive Puerto Ricans here at K. She hates “how we’re labeled as a minority. People don’t treat us as actual American citizens even though we are, just without the benefits of living in the states.”
Petra chose Kalamazoo College largely because of the financial aid she received, which made attending higher education achievable. The university in Puerto Rico is currently in crisis and cannot guarantee students the ability to graduate in four years. K also has a strong anthropology program, which was high on her list of qualifications for a college.
Aside from the stress of Puerto Rico’s situation, Petra’s transition to K has been a largely positive one. “The community is very accepting, and clubs like the LatinX Student Organization have really helped me,” she said. Nonetheless, it is a different culture and environment that will take some adjustment.
The destruction of a little island by a hurricane can seem far away – sometimes like it does not affect us. But the tragedy has its reach all over, and Rodriguez’s story goes to show that students on Kalamazoo College’s campus have been directly affected.