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NOAA/The Xylom Illustration

Blowing Away the Ivy Narrative

Hurricane Maria brought me to an unexpected place.



Yes, I transferred from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez straight into Cornell.

No, I didn’t come from a place of privilege.

Maybe, just maybe, this is how it’s supposed to be.


It’s been over a year since I arrived at Ithaca, NY, a small college town four hours northwest of New York City, yet I still feel like a fish out of water. Being accepted into Cornell is one of my proudest achievements; I never thought it’d be possible for me to go to an Ivy League institution. As I finish my degree in the Contiguous United States after two years of studying at Puerto Rico, I found myself immersed in a different culture, a different rigor, a different language, and different weather. Nothing for me was familiar, and I felt as though I couldn’t relate to any of my peers. In fact, throughout my first year, I had zero female professors and still, I have yet to encounter a Hispanic professor in my field.


I constantly ask myself: What am I doing here? Am I cut out for this? Throw in the lack of guidance I received once getting here and you’ve got a perfect recipe for constant self-doubt and severe Impostor Syndrome.


I power through it, though. If I let myself be hindered because of this, I wouldn’t be where I’m at since I’ve been in college.


 

I applied to Cornell after a disaster had struck in Puerto Rico. You might have heard of it: Hurricane Maria. A disaster so huge, it divided our history into “pre-” and “post-Maria” because life on the island wouldn’t be the same.


I was out of school for a month, ironically, I spent that whole month studying for organic chemistry because we’re supposed to have a test the week right after the hurricane happened. It was also one of the few things I could keep myself entertained with; the only other thing I did was read all of the Harry Potter books, which only took me seven days. President Trump loves to talk about how 92 million dollars in aid were awarded to our government but fails to mention that we never saw that money. Try as we might, we could do nothing to stop the places we once lived or worked or studied in from decaying in front of our very own eyes. I wish I could show you what it looked like, but most areas had been quarantined from even those who lived there.


It was during this time that I applied to transfer to schools.


I’ve always been seeking out new opportunities to learn, and my parents and I had been hearing on the radio about universities in the U.S. accepting “students displaced by the hurricane” for a semester. Yes, on the radio, not an ad on the internet because we didn’t have internet access or really any other form of communication for over a month. One time, we heard that New York state schools were taking part in these programs. I went to my dad’s workplace since he works at a software developing company and about three weeks after the hurricane they had been set up with satellite internet to try and get things up and running, and I looked up those public universities.


...my parents and I had been hearing on the radio about universities in the U.S. accepting “students displaced by the hurricane” for a semester. Yes, on the radio, not an ad on the internet because we didn’t have internet access or really any other form of communication for over a month.

Five minutes later (because that’s how long satellite internet takes to load) it appeared that Cornell is one such institution. What I hadn’t noticed is that four of the thirteen colleges are state-funded and the one that popped up was the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which is one of them. However, Cornell is, as a whole, private. My parents encouraged me to apply, so I started filling out the application. It turned out Cornell hadn’t developed any program for students affected by the hurricane yet and that I was applying through the regular transfer pathway. I was already halfway through so I decided to just go with it since I was already thinking of transferring anyway; besides, they weren’t going to accept me because why would an Ivy League institution accept a student like me? Aren’t these schools reserved for those who are privileged enough, or legacies, or geniuses? I am not any of that.


You can then imagine my absolute shock when I got my acceptance email two and a half months after the disaster in the middle of my MATLAB lecture. I couldn’t believe what I was reading sitting in that freezing cold auditorium. Out of the six classes I was taking that semester, it was the only building that still had functioning air conditioning and electrical systems. My first reaction: no way, this is a mistake. This email is probably directed to another Nicole. I’ll get a second email soon saying it was a mistake.


But that second email never came.


 

Coming into Cornell as a transfer, you already feel like you have a lot to prove about yourself. As a proud Puerto Rican, I feel like I have to not only prove myself but also work against the stereotypes that surro