Date October 22, 2017
Media Contact

Brown welcomes displaced University of Puerto Rico students, faculty

In addition to formal efforts organized through the Leadership Alliance to bring scholars to campus, members of the Brown community are raising funds, housing visiting students and offering direct assistance to those affected by Hurricane Maria.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Andrés Martínez-Muñiz waited out Hurricane Maria with his parents at their home in the city of Gurabo, Puerto Rico. More than a month after the powerful Category 4 storm decimated much of the island, his family’s house is still without working electricity, running water or internet service — as is most of the U.S. island territory. His school, the University of Puerto Rico, where nearly 60,000 students pursue their studies, remains shuttered.

Last Tuesday, Martínez-Muñiz, an undergraduate chemistry major, boarded a plane from Puerto Rico to Rhode Island, where he’ll finish his fall semester studies at Brown — and remain through the spring semester if necessary — as one of up to 50 University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students Brown has committed to enrolling in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

“Even as the Brown community is supporting relief agencies in providing food, water, medicine and other basic living essentials to the people of Puerto Rico, we also are contributing in ways that align with our core strengths of teaching and research,” Brown President Christina Paxson said.

The desperate conditions in Puerto Rico caused by the devastation of Hurricane Maria have mobilized Brown as a higher education community to take action. 

“The hurricane — it is as bad as it sounds. There’s destruction everywhere, and people are still suffering the consequences,” said Martínez-Muñiz, who described chaotic, long lines to buy necessities at stores and said his family has resorted to collecting and purifying rainwater for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Three weeks after the Sept. 20 storm, Martínez-Muñiz drove 45 minutes to find a working web connection, hoping to check in on family and friends he hadn’t heard from. When he opened his email, he found a message from Dr. Jonathan Kurtis, a Brown professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. Martínez-Muñiz had worked in Kurtis’s lab over the summer, and the email was an invitation to return to Brown to continue his research and enroll in classes.

“If I hadn’t thought about checking my email and finding good service, I wouldn’t be here at Brown today,” Martínez-Muñiz said.

Martínez-Muñiz had come to Kurtis’s lab as a student in a summer research program hosted by the Leadership Alliance, a Brown-based consortium of 36 universities and research institutions, including UPR, that works to increase the participation of underrepresented students in academic and research careers. Like Brown, many other member institutions of the alliance have pledged to enroll students affected by the hurricane.

Undergraduates recommended by UPR will apply for admission to Brown, and those accepted will enroll in credit-bearing courses that will enable them to continue their courses of study, minimizing interruption as they work toward graduation. Brown will not charge tuition or fees and is assisting with travel and providing housing.

From President Paxson and Provost Richard Locke to Corporation members, alumni, students, faculty and staff, many across the campus community are stepping up to support efforts individually, too — raising funds, supporting travel to the U.S. by students from Puerto Rico and marshaling resources to send medical and other supplies to the island.

Some have offered to host displaced scholars in their homes during this period, in addition to the rooms the University has made available through campus housing. In the days since his arrival, Martínez-Muñiz has been staying in the home of Locke, whose office is helping to coordinate the effort.

“Our entire community has been deeply moved by the devastation that Puerto Rico has suffered,” Locke said. “Partnering with the University of Puerto Rico offers the opportunity for us to welcome exceptional students and scholars to College Hill to continue their research and education while their campuses work to reopen.”

In addition to undergraduates, graduate and medical students from the University of Puerto Rico can also apply to enroll at Brown. The Warren Alpert Medical School is working through the American Association of Medical Colleges to offer opportunities for medical students to continue education and training. Graduate students nominated by a faculty member at Brown with whom they will collaborate in their research and education are eligible, too.

To date, more than 60 students in total have applied; by the coming week of Oct. 23, the University expects that approximately 20 will be on campus to begin studies.

Brown will also welcome UPR faculty members displaced by Hurricane Maria whose work aligns with that of faculty at Brown. Placement will require approval from UPR as well as support from the relevant Brown academic department.

The effort to support fellow scholars in the wake of Hurricane Maria builds on a tradition at Brown of partnering with higher education institutions during periods of disruption caused by natural disaster. Following Hurricane Katrina, Brown partnered with Princeton University and through the Leadership Alliance to host displaced students and scholars and to provide technical assistance to a number of institutions in New Orleans. The University also undertook similar efforts following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Students and faculty are pitching in directly, too. In the week following the storm, a group of Brown students from Puerto Rico joined together for a fundraiser on the College Green that ultimately raised $3,100 for "Unidos por Puerto Rico," an aid initiative spearheaded by Beatriz Rosselló, the wife of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló. They are currently working to create a formal student club, the Puerto Rican Association of Brown University, to continue to advocate for the Puerto Rican people during this time, said Irelys Cordero, a student involved in the fundraising efforts who said that the Brown community “showed overwhelming support for our cause during the fundraiser.”

Cordero’s family is safe, but they are still without electricity and potable water — and food is scarce. It took her two weeks to contact them on the phone.

“Personally, it has been horrible,” Cordero said. “There are no words to express how difficult it has been for me and for all of my family and friends on the island. It will be a long way to recovery, but we are resilient people and will get through and come out the other end stronger than ever.”

Doctors from  the Warren Alpert Medical School have offered direct relief to address the territory’s urgent medical crisis, and multiple academic departments, institutes and centers at Brown co-sponsored a benefit concert last week at Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island, which featured Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban Jazz saxophonist Yosvany Terry and his Ancestral Memories Quartet.

For his part, Martínez-Muñiz said that the Brown community has been incredibly welcoming and supportive during this difficult time.

“The students at University of Puerto Rico have had to put their careers on pause and are at the mercy of something they can’t control,” he said. “Brown is working to minimize that effect and to offer opportunities to students affected by this natural disaster… This is what universities should do — open their doors and help.”