Twelve years ago, colleges across the country opened their doors to Tulane University students displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Now Tulane wants to return the favor by taking in students displaced from their schools in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.
The urge to do something was there as soon as Maria, a Category 5 storm, slammed into Puerto Rico last month.
“As I was reading the news, I knew that there were ways to help the situation,” said Jeff Schiffman, the director of Tulane’s Office of Undergraduate Admission.
The small staff was focused on the disaster partly because some — like Schiffman — had lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. But it also felt personal because admissions counselor Jorge Nunez is Puerto Rican.
Nunez, who has lived in New Orleans for about five years, graduated from the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus, where he majored in comparative literature. “It’s a great school, with about 60,000 students and lots of research,” he said.
Since the storm hit, news about his alma mater has been scant, though he’s gleaned from social media that many buildings are damaged and it’s unclear when the university system may reopen.
Many cellphone towers have been knocked out and few areas have electricity, so Nunez is usually able to talk to his family for only a few minutes before the call drops. “It took me five days to even hear from my family. And I was one of the lucky ones,” said Nunez, who has friends whose families weren’t able to reach them until recently.
Though Nunez has had only brief conversations with his parents, they tell him that because they live in a more rural area, they are able to forage for food and get water from the river to boil. An uncle has a refrigerator connected to a generator that can keep his great-grandmother’s medication cool, alongside medication for other neighbors.
Nunez’s family doesn’t tell him about their immediate needs, he said. “Their main sadness is the status of the island, the status of nature. All of this beauty, gone,” he said.
He recalls a hurricane that hit Puerto Rico hard during his childhood. “It was not as devastating as this,” he said, but he can still remember the silence that followed the disaster. “We didn’t see birds flying. The land feels like it’s barren.”
“And on top of that, there's a long road to recovery,” he said. “The level of damage is so bad.”
Initially, Nunez’s admissions office colleagues worked to raise money for disaster relief efforts in the U.S territory. “But we hadn’t figured out anything bigger,” Schiffman said.
Then the light bulb went on, after a 2006 Tulane graduate walked into the undergraduate admissions office accompanied by her cousin, a college student from Puerto Rico who had evacuated to New Orleans.
The Tulane alumna asked Schiffman, “Do you have anything set up for Puerto Rican students, like what schools did for us after Katrina?”
At that point, they had nothing in place. But Schiffman liked the idea.
“So many schools opened up their hearts to us back then,” he said, explaining how, after Katrina, Tulane students paid their tuition to Tulane but were able to attend other schools that gave them guest-student status but did not charge them tuition. In the end, a total of 600 schools waived tuition to help Tulane rebuild and get back on its feet financially.
Schiffman went to work, discussing possibilities with Tulane administrators.
Last week, Tulane announced the new program, which allows students from Puerto Rico to pay their spring tuition to their school at home while attending Tulane for a guest semester, with no tuition. The program is also open to students from other storm-affected areas such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Martin/St. Maarten, a Caribbean island hit by Hurricane Irma.
Program guidelines outline the acceptance criteria in both Spanish and English. Timelines are tight: Applications are due by Nov. 1.
But at the end of the technical document, Schiffman added a more personal note.
“The city of New Orleans and Tulane hope to welcome you this spring to help you get your education back on track,” he wrote. “New Orleans may not be your home, but we’ll do our best to be your temporary shelter from the storm.”
“We’re replicating what was done for us, on a smaller scale,” Schiffman said. “For us, it’s just the right thing to do.”
The admissions office is also hoping to connect Puerto Rican students who want to attend Tulane and New Orleanians willing to host a student in their home for the semester.
On Friday, Schiffman’s staff tweeted out an announcement about the new program.
They expected a modest response, since most of the office’s posts are retweeted a few hundred times at most. Then, a few hours later, it was retweeted by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical "Hamilton," whose extended family lives in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.
In one day’s time, the message was retweeted and liked nearly 13,000 times.
Schiffman was both delighted and a little nervous. “Obviously, there are thousands and thousands of students in Puerto Rico,” he said. “And Tulane does have a limited number of spaces.”
If the school receives a flood of applications, Schiffman’s hope is that other universities will follow suit and open their doors to collegiate evacuees, as they did 12 years ago.
Nunez feels “overwhelmingly thankful” to Tulane for the program. But for him, the program goes far beyond institutional generosity.
“It means that someone is hearing us, that people want to help,” he said.