TAMPA, Fla. — Adriana Figueroa planned to move to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico for college, but Hurricane Maria moved up her plans. She’s now finishing high school in the Tampa area – one of at least 13,000 Puerto Rican students who relocated after the storm.
After Hurricane Maria ravaged her hometown of Dorado, Puerto Rico six months ago, Figueroa moved to live with her aunt in Hillsborough County, Fla., and pursue a diploma at Sickles High School. Her parents and two sisters remained in their concrete home, which withstood the hurricane, although they struggle with getting electricity and water.
“The decision was made on a Friday that I was leaving, and then on Tuesday, I was already on the plane to come here,” Figueroa said. “My parents decided, ‘Why not? This seems to be the opportunity. Let’s give her that.’”
Florida has taken in nearly 8,000 students since the hurricane. New York has enrolled nearly 2,200 students, and Connecticut has the third largest number of Puerto Rican students at about 2,000. Florida has a larger proportion of students living in Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded hotel rooms.
Florida is the only state that accepted Puerto Rico’s proposal to get into a host-state agreement and collaborate on transferring students’ records, said FEMA Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Justo Hernandez.
Florida is also the only state that requested FEMA reimbursement for the costs of taking in students.
Despite the challenges inherent in taking in new students, many of whom do not speak English, Florida schools worked hard to “make it happen” in the middle of the school year, said Hillsborough County Public Schools board member Susan Valdez, who represents Sickles High School’s district where Figueroa is a student. Valdez also said the school is focused on helping students first and knows it will take a long time to get federal reimbursement.
“[If] company comes and you’re in the middle of dinner, [you’d say,] ‘Hey, come on, sit down,’ and we’d share what we have,” Valdez said. “That’s what we’ve done here. It’s just been that spirit of collaboration all along.”
Figueroa is one of nearly 1,100 Puerto Rican students who moved to Hillsborough County after the storm to continue their education. The Hillsborough school system serves approximately 260,000 students and is the eighth largest school system in the United States.
Valdez said enrolling students from Puerto Rico was a straightforward process because of their U.S. citizenship. While students were required to obtain physicals and receive vaccinations to enroll in Hillsborough County schools, nurses and physicians on staff worked with them to make sure they met the enrollment requirements.
“We were expecting families to come, and immediately the district staff got together and we started to work in collaboration with the other agencies and start to prepare,” Valdez said.
Since October, Sickles High has had between 15 and 20 Puerto Rican students enrolled at any given time, said Principal Mary Freitas. The number fluctuates because students may return home or arrive in Florida depending on recovery conditions on the island.
While Figueroa will receive her diploma from Sickles High, graduating seniors may also receive diplomas issued by their high schools in Puerto Rico after completing credit requirements in the U.S.
“Despite all of the support, however, some Puerto Rican students said they still had a hard time adjusting to their new schools and new lives.
Figueroa said the chaos of moving homes and adjusting distracted her for the first three weeks, but her emotions caught up with her eventually.
“I didn’t think I was very close with my mom, but it turns out I am,” Figueroa said. “It was not easy. I cried a lot, because, you know, that’s part of it.”
Figueroa is fluent in both English and Spanish, and was ahead on her credit requirements when she got to Florida. But other students who aren’t as fluent in English struggle with the language barrier.
Carlos Velazquez, 14, who attends Howard W. Blake High School in Hillsborough County, doesn’t read or write in English. But all of his courses, including physics, math, and literature, are taught by English-speaking teachers, while only one teacher is available to help Spanish-speaking students understand their coursework.
This is the second high school Velazquez has attended in Florida since fall. He didn’t like his first school, and was having trouble making friends. His mom was able to switch him to a new high school, where he said he is having a better learning experience.
But for Figueroa, school helps restore a sense of normalcy in her life.
“School gave me something else to think about. It kept me occupied because I had to get on with all the semester’s work,” Figueroa said.
Though she was shocked by students’ pink hair, piercings, and other sartorial flourishes — “In private schools [in Puerto Rico], they don’t even let you paint your nails!” — she learned to embrace the diversity.
While she now feels more at home in Sickles High, Figueroa said she hasn’t forgotten the devastation that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico and what she feels has been an inadequate response by the American government.
“My mom has been without light since Hurricane Irma,” she said. “She spent 141 days without light. If that happened in the U.S., I think the most amount of days you could’ve been out is, like, a day.”
As she fills out college applications, like the other seniors at Sickles, Puerto Rico’s plight has changed her college plans. She had planned to major in psychology, but now wants to pursue a career in advocacy for minority rights.
She remembers the video of President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane victims during his visit to the island as an example of what she wants to fight against.
“You don’t do that — we’re American citizens, too,” she said. “I just wanted to do something for Hispanics. Maybe that’s what I’m meant to do.”