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 surround us. We are often seen as second-class citizens, inferior to those on the “mainland” in every way, even though we have been an American territory since 1898, granted U.S. citizenship by birth since 1917, adopted the American Dollar as our currency, and abide by federal laws. Maybe it’s because we speak a different language, but they seem to forget our American colonizers forced English upon us and many of us speak English and are fully bilingual. It often feels as if every failure and disappointment proves this idea of “inferiority” right and I am constantly battling against it. I am sure that everyone in the diaspora can relate.
We are often seen as second-class citizens, inferior to those on the “mainland” in every way, even though we have been an American territory since 1898, granted U.S. citizenship by birth since 1917, adopted the American Dollar as our currency, and abide by federal laws.
I made peace with all my negative thoughts and decided to succeed in my new environment. Research is my passion, so I set out to find a research lab on campus. I wasn’t aware of the “proper etiquette” to find research at Cornell, so I sought out to email faculty and was lucky to get a couple of responses back. After some interviews, I joined the Sing Immunotherapy and Cellular Engineering Lab at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. I love the work we do using 3D hydrogel models to study Lymphoma. It has helped me find my passion for immunological and cancer biology research. I even won an award that allowed me to further my project.
Through all this, I’ve learned that representation matters. This past semester, I counted 7 Hispanic women in my general engineering class, including myself, out of 100 students in the lecture hall. (Editor’s note: As of July 2019, 18.3% of the US population self-identify as Hispanic or Latino. The Hispanic population is slightly larger than this number.) Because of that, my drive now also includes representation of a whole community in a field where there aren’t many of us: engineering. I’ve become really active in our campus’ Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, including helping organize the Latino Leadership Summit during my first year there, where we held workshops that give students the tools they need to network and build their careers. I’ve also been growing my network with Puerto Rican students and scientists online, specifically through Twitter, and sharing my experiences, hoping that it’ll help other students. Not encountering a mentor that looks like me at Cornell and scarcely interacting with Hispanic women in my field has fueled my fire to become that person for others like me.
Hurricane Maria destroyed my past, but out of the brokenness comes my new life. I like to tell other budding scientists in Puerto Rico that nothing is ever too far out of their reach. And if they do believe this, I encourage them to at least try because, well, you never know where this whirlwind would bring you to.
Puerto Rico has been trembling since December 2019 and it keeps shaking today. Because of this, many students are looking to continue their studies in the US, since it’s looking more and more promising every day to make the shift. However, due to the pandemic we are living, and have been living for the past three months, everything has become uncertain, and current and graduating students are facing a new world. Now, university students in Puerto Rico don’t know if leaving is the best choice. It also looks bleak for those entering the workforce.
Personally, I would like to finish my studies since I am set to graduate next May, but many others would prefer not to start in-person instruction as to not risk their health, or they don’t want to deal with online classes. I don’t blame them, I understand perfectly. We often forget that not everyone shares the same situation right now and are affected in very different ways. Their situation might make it impossible to resume online classes in the fall. Due to the spread of COVID-19, I am back home, between four walls, without being able to leave, just like I was three years ago after the hurricane. The difference lies in that today I have internet, water, electricity, and can communicate with the outside world. If I want to check up on my friends and family, I have that commodity right now, something I lacked three years ago. Still, the looming insecurity about the near future is very similar to what I felt after Hurricane Maria. I don’t know if I’ll have school next semester, if classes will be online or in-person, if I have to travel back to Ithaca and be exposed to COVID-19. Living through Hurricane Maria taught me that even when things seem bleak, new opportunities can arise after. For now, we stay conscious, stay safe, and do our part.