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IU offers help to Puerto Rican graduate students in wake of Hurricane Maria



Puerto Rico Scholars_Junhui Wu-2911

Six scholars from the University of Puerto Rico stand in the School of Education on Wednesday, April 25. The IU Bloomington-Universidad de Puerto Rico Education Graduate Scholars program created space for six graduate education students from the University of Puerto Rico to work and study at IU-Bloomington.  Junhui Wu Buy Photos

When news of Hurricane Maria hit IU, several members of the School of Education decided they wanted to do something to help. 

The result became the IU Bloomington-Universidad de Puerto Rico Education Graduate Scholars program. This partnership created space for six graduate education students from the University of Puerto Rico to come work and study at IU-Bloomington. 

Two of the main people driving this initiative are Professor Bradley Levinson and Associate Professor Carmen Medina from the School of Education.

“You could go straight from the initial shock of the extent of devastation to the need of a lot of people on campus to do something to help,” Levinson said. 

However, he said the program that brought the students here was not the original idea. At first, the idea was to offer Puerto Rican students in-state tuition at IU, which the University did for students at Tulane University after Hurricane Katrina. 

When they proposed this idea to faculty in Puerto Rico, they discovered that the University of Puerto Rico did not feel like this would be helpful to them in the long run. 

Faculty from Puerto Rico said offering in-state tuition to students often takes them away from Puerto Rico permanently. For education students, this also means drawing potential teachers away from Puerto Rico because many stay and teach in the United States after they graduate. 

Levinson said the two universities worked together to come up with a solution that would help Puerto Rican students, while not taking them away from their home universities permanently.

John Nieto Phillips, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, also contributed substantially to this program. Levinson said Phillips made connections with some of the faculty in Puerto Rico to ensure that whatever path IU took would be helpful and not contribute to the feeling that other universities in the United States were undermining the University of Puerto Rico. 

“There’s also a longer-term hope that this will serve as the beginning of an ongoing collaboration,” Levinson said. 

The solution the two universities found was for IU to give the six Puerto Rican students a place to live and work to finish their dissertations and theses from Feb. 20 to April 30. The goal for many of the students was to finish their projects by the time they return to Puerto Rico. 

Ashley Ann Miranda Negron and Francisco Muniz are two of the visiting scholars, and they both said being at IU has helped keep their progress on track.

IU has provided the students with housing close to the School of Education and with faculty mentors, which has helped acclimate them to life within the IU community.

Other than helping to provide resources like water, electricity and WiFi, being at the University in general and around other students is a great benefit, Muniz and Negron said. 

In Puerto Rico, graduate students are more separated from university life than they are at IU.

 “For me, this has given me the opportunity to feel like part of the university at the graduate level,” Muniz said.

Negron is working toward her master’s of teaching arts in English. 

“My thesis is about translanguaging and using sign language in the basic English classroom,” she said. 

Translanguaging is using multiple languages together to help with learning, in this case, English and sign language. 

In Puerto Rico, part of her master’s program allowed her to teach some undergraduate level classes. She works with the students who scored the lowest on the English portion of the college admission assessment. 

“It was very hard to get them to open up and to participate in class, and whenever I would be discussing something, like the present tense, I didn’t know if they understood the concept because they weren’t communicating with me,” she said. 

If she taught them some basic sign language and had the students use signs in the English classroom, she said she thought they might be more willing to communicate with her. 

“I thought their fear was of pronunciation and not being able to pronounce something in the English language, kind of not having that opportunity to communicate,” Negron said. 

To avoid this obstacle, she taught her students five basic signs: yes, no, understand, don’t understand and question. So far, she has seen results using this method, she said. 

“That opened this new channel of communication where students were able to feel comfortable but also communicate and develop their English language skills," Negron said.

Negron is planning to graduate in May. She said having the opportunity to come finish her work here was “a blessing.” 

This program allowed Negron to focus on finishing her thesis without the constant uncertainty that living in Puerto Rico right now entails, she said. 

“I would wake up one day, and I wouldn’t have any water or electricity," she said. "How am I going to cook? How am I going to do all these things that I need to do, plus then work and worry about my thesis? Being here, not having to worry about that, is a blessing. It’s amazing."

Muniz also talked about how uncertainty in Puerto Rico was one of the main reasons he felt he needed to leave.

Before he knew he had been accepted to the IU program, he moved to Florida so he could continue his work. He has family in Florida, which allowed him to move and work in an area with stable resources. 

“In Florida, my experience was that I was disappointed because even though I was able to work, I wasn’t in a university environment," he said. 

Being there was frustrating, he said. 

“People around me didn’t even know what a dissertation was,” Muniz said. “The whole thing changed when I was accepted though, and I was very excited.”

Muniz is a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction, with a specialization in teaching English as a second language. His dissertation is about the influence of written English fiction in the identity development of readers. 

“What’s particular about this study is that in Puerto Rico, even though English and Spanish hold co-official status on the island, these particular avid readers prefer to read in English fiction, even though their main language is Spanish,” Muniz said. 

This phenomenon affects readers, writers and educators, he said. 

“Based on that idea, I just figured it was something for me to contribute to educators to improve their classrooms and teaching strategies,” Muniz said. “And also for fiction writers to improve their approaches, to work in English.”

Despite the lack of stability in Puerto Rico right now, both students spoke of their determination to graduate and stay on track for their professional careers. 

This partnership with IU was designed to help them meet this goal. Levinson said the way IU could help was through providing the students with space, resources and peace and quiet for them to finish their degrees. 

Both Muniz and Negron agree they would not have finished as much work as they did by staying in Puerto Rico. 

“I was losing my mind, quite honestly,” Muniz said. “Just imagine if you were about to finish and you know that everything is going as planned and suddenly not one hurricane but two come and they ruin your whole plan.” 

Being derailed this close to graduation was a major source of Muniz’s frustration, but he also said that while the circumstances posed a challenge, they were not going to stop his progress. 

“It was a matter of 100 percent determination in my case,” he said. 

“Puerto Rico is certainly a great place to be — it’s just that it’s having a tough time right now,” Muniz said. “We always manage, just like everywhere else.” 

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