Puerto Rico Trip Sheds Light on Island Still Recovering from Hurricane

Andrea Konkol, associate director of admissions at Penn State Behrend, recently returned from Puerto Rico, an island still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, which tore through the Caribbean six months ago. Hurricane Maria was the worst natural disaster to ever hit Puerto Rico and is responsible for at least 112 confirmed deaths. Some people are still missing. The death toll in Puerto Rico is believed to be much higher than reported, possibly more than 1,000. The hurricane wrought catastrophic damage to the island, with much of the housing and infrastructure beyond repair. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion. We asked Konkol to share what she saw while she was in Puerto Rico attending College Week in the Caribbean.

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By Andrea Konkol

Associate director of admissions, Penn State Behrend

College Week in the Caribbean is a weeklong series of high school visits and college fairs coordinated by the Caribbean Counselor Association (CCA), a group of college and school counselors based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I traveled with representatives from twelve other college and universities. This was my twelfth College Week since 2011. Students in Puerto Rico have only a few options for college on the island and many are looking to go to the mainland United States to pursue new and different opportunities.

I was apprehensive about traveling this year because I wondered what the condition of the islands would be like post-Hurricane Maria.

I was surprised by how green everything was when I looked out over the landscape. If you saw pictures of Puerto Rico after the hurricane, you know that the landscape and trees were stripped bare and appeared totally brown. Mother Nature can regenerate at fantastic rate! (Check out this slideshow with then and now photos of Puerto Rico).

There are certainly bruises on the infrastructure, though. Buildings with boarded-up windows, twisted and bent street signs, and the occasional out-of-order street light were all things I witnessed.

For the most part, though, life seems to be back to somewhat normal conditions. People go to work and to school. Life has gone on. As I reflect on my week, I am struck by one thought: the people living on these islands are incredibly resilient!

I should say that our travels did not take us directly into the hardest hit areas that are, by many accounts, still without water or power. I was mostly in the San Juan metro area.

However, we did spend one day traveling southwest of San Juan, to Ponce. The drive took us through the central mountains of the island. It was hard to miss the telltale bright blue FEMA tarps that dotted the hillsides and marked homes damaged by the storm. Again, the greenness of the mountains was astonishing! Both people and nature were hard at work rebuilding.

My hotel appeared to be serving as some kind of logistics center for the island’s power restoration efforts. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the elevators were filled with electrical line workers. I spoke with one gentleman from Con Edison who lived in New Jersey. He had been on the island for more than a month and was also on the island for the month of November. He asked if I was on vacation. I wish! When I told him I was a recruiter for Penn State, he told me he had a 17-year-old looking at colleges. “Keep Penn State in mind!” I said as he exited the elevator. As admissions recruiters we are always working to recruit our next student, even in elevators!

We visited eighteen schools in Puerto Rico and two in St. Thomas during our five days of recruiting. School counselors consistently told us it was a tough year. Maria hit just as students were applying to colleges for fall admission. Yet, they told stories of students and neighbors helping each other. They shared a few scarce Wi-Fi hot spots with friends so they could complete their college applications. Several schools greeted us with cheers when we arrived. Students in Puerto Rico are hungry for college information.

My time in Puerto Rico often reminds me why I love my job. I like to think higher education is the business of changing lives. While I hope some of the students I spoke with will explore Penn State further, perhaps the most important thing they learn from College Week is that a college education is possible and opportunities abound.

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Andrea Konkol, right, at the the big public college fair. The other woman in the picture with Konkol is Glendalys Millan, mother of one of our current students Paola Maldonado-Millan.  Konkol said Millan graciously volunteered to help her at the fair because the Penn State table tends to be so busy.

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Students at Academy San Jose.

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The San Juan skyline.

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Oustside the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.

 

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