Kristaly Rodríguez literally dropped off her belongings in her room at Risley Hall Sunday before making her way to Clark Atrium in the Physical Sciences Building for a Bienvenidos dessert reception and orientation for new students from Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR).
Once there, she and friend Elizabeth Rivera collected a colorful hat and scarf, a water bottle and bag and, by the end of the night, new mentors to help guide them through the semester.
“There are a lot of opportunities here,” said Rodríguez, a biology major. “This is a really big place filled with people from different cultures.”
For Rivera, who’s interested in neuroscience, the rigor of Cornell’s curriculum was a draw. “Cornell has one of the top-ranked biology programs, so I know this will be a great challenge for me, but it will give me a wonderful chance to expand my career,” she said.
Sunday’s gathering was part of a weekend of events for the 62 new students, who were offered free tuition and room and board for a semester because of the devastating impacts of Hurricane Maria. While several universities have offered UPR students in-state tuition, Cornell is one of only four offering one semester of free tuition, room and board.
The reception, sponsored by the Latina/o Studies Program, the Latina/o/x Student Success Office and the Puerto Rican Students Associationn (PRSA), included words of encouragement from fellow students, including Chris Arce and Marielisa Cabrera, presidents of the Puerto Rican Students Association and Andrea Acevedo, a doctoral student involved with Cornell’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). The new students were also welcomed by staff and faculty, including a number of professors from across the university who came offering to help connect students to resources or just be a listening ear.
“In Puerto Rico, we invented the word resilience,” Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, associate professor of Latina/o Studies and anthropology, told the students as she encouraged them to remain strong even if their circumstances become challenging.
“We appreciate the courage it took you to venture to rural New York state in January,” said Juliette Corazón, assistant dean, Latina/o/x Student Success Office and advising dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, who handled much of the organizing and communicating with the new students.
Lizette Albelo attended the reception with two of her sons. One of them, sophomore Ricardo Natal, is one of the new students. His older brother, Manuel Natal Albelo ’08, graduated from Cornell and is a lawyer and member of Puerto Rico’s 29th House of Representatives.
“This is an excellent university and he’s very excited to be here,” Albelo said of Ricardo. She said electricity was only restored to her house about a week ago. “We have had many months without anything.”
Gilberto J. Treviño Cintrón is in his final semester studying international business.
“To finish my degree, I needed to do an international exchange program, so this is perfect,” he said, adding that he’s signed up for classes in trade and agriculture and calculus, as well as business, and would like to own his own business someday.
“I want to be more involved in a connected campus,” he said. “There are all sorts of technologies here that we don’t have and I hope to make many connections with people from diverse fields.”
Visible reminders of the connected campus were the hats, scarves and gloves that the new students donned as they sat chatting with each other and enjoying desserts. Knitters from around the university made 126 hats, 25 sets of mittens and 100 scarves and cowls, said Stacie Mann, a staff member at the Lab of Ornithology who managed the project and was on hand Sunday with other knitters, to hand them out. Many of the items included safety-pinned notes of welcome from the knitter.
The event ended with students pairing up with current Cornell students who are acting as mentors to help them navigate everything from enrolling in courses to finding the closest dining hall or fitness center. Acevedo was instrumental in matching each new student with a graduate student, while the PRSA helped find undergrad mentors. The pairs met with hugs and handshakes and an exchange of contact information Sunday night.
“My mom was almost crying when I left to come here, but she is very proud that I came here,” Rodríguez said. “I want to prove to my family that I can do this.”