Victims of Hurricane Maria are weighing the possibility of a fresh start in Arkansas this winter.
The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville is among a handful of schools on the United States’ mainland offering tuition help to Puerto Rican students whose universities were damaged and closed after the storm.
Violeta Lorenzo-Feliciano, a Spanish professor who studies literature from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, raised the idea with the university’s administration after hearing on social media about a movement among universities to help Puerto Rican students.
“I was actually surprised that when I brought it up, the first response that I got is that they [administrators] had already been thinking about this.”
Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz says the university offered in-state tuition to victims of Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago, and would do the same, if possible, for any storm-damaged school.
“I was quite taken with the concern that was expressed by large numbers of people on this campus for the people of Puerto Rico and for these students that need help. I’m really happy that we could do this. It’s the right thing to do.”
He says the school’s offer of in-state tuition, $9,062 a year, may help some hurricane-affected students stay on-track toward graduation.
“When an education is interrupted for a variety of different reasons, a lot of students simply don’t continue,” he says.
About five Puerto Ricans have contacted the school so far. One has applied.
But Lorenzo-Feliciano says other schools offering tuition reductions in areas where more Puerto Ricans have settled, like Florida, may see higher numbers of them enroll, and that is causing some island faculty to worry.
“Maybe programs like this will get students more into debt. If they travel to the United States, there’s still cost of living that they have to pay for."
Perhaps a more immediate concern is the potential for a brain drain
"Students might just leave, and the island really needs its youth right now,” she says.
But the university is offering the discount for only two semesters, possibly more, depending on how quickly universities in Puerto Rico are able to rebuild.
She says if Puerto Ricans come, she’ll start a group to discuss the stress of leaving the hurricane recovery and integrating into life in Arkansas.
“I think that students are going to need a safe space to talk about their concerns, especially if they are leaving family members behind.”
Florida universities are also offering in-state tuition, while others like Tulane, in New Orleans, are offering a semester of free tuition to the hurricane victims.
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