Cornell says farewell to Puerto Rican students

Sixty-two students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) are leaving campus in the next two weeks. They say they’ve had memorable academic experiences and made friendships they hope will continue after they leave Ithaca.

Cornell students, faculty and staff hosted a farewell reception for them May 7 at the Africana Studies and Research Center with food, music and a cake decorated with a photo of UPR students, at which UPR students presented staff with a card signed by them with messages of thanks.

Santos Cardona, a UPR sophomore who’s majoring in political science and economics, said he’s motivated to return to the island with information he’s learned at Cornell.

“Having new resources and information, my classes gave me new theories and readings that really changed the way I see how things are going in Puerto Rico,” Cardona said. “They gave me some ideas for new solutions that I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d only stayed on the island around the same people.”

Other students say they took advantage of Cornell’s vast array of classes to learn something new. Victoria Gutierrez, a junior pre-med student majoring in chemistry, enjoyed the class “Modern Romance,” which explored relationships, sexuality, gender studies and pornography.

Stephanie LaSalle, a junior majoring in English as a second language who would like to work with deaf children, most enjoyed her linguistics classes and a “Latinos in the U.S.” class.

“Their contributions to our class were fantastic,” said Héctor Vélez, adjunct associate professor in the Latina/o Studies Program, who taught the “Latinos in the U.S.” class, which was taken by 11 UPR students. “They spoke about the hurricane, showed videos of their homes before and after and talked about the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. I would normally have talked about these things, but it was so much better coming directly from them.”

LaSalle also became involved with the Cornell Deaf Awareness Project and took American Sign Language classes at the Finger Lakes Independence Center.

Staff, faculty and student mentors from various campus organizations helped UPR students with everything from choosing classes to navigating around Ithaca. A network of Ithacans, organized through Ithaca’s Multicultural Resource Center, have been raising funds for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction and hosted students for dinner, Corazon said.

“I met this guy, Danny, who is like my older brother now,” LaSalle said. “He took me to church and helped me to get to the Finger Lakes Independence Center.”

While the experience has been a good one, students said they are excited to head home.

“I’ve been a little homesick,” Gutierrez admitted, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing her friends and family. “It really kind of shocked me how little people here know about Puerto Rico.”

Gutierrez took two of her new Cornell friends home to Puerto Rico with her during spring break. “We took them to the beaches and showed them our university, but also took them to the west side of the island, which is totally different [rural, traditional, fewer English speakers] than the area that tourists usually see,” she said. “While they were there, there was a 30-minute blackout, so they got to experience that too.”

“I expect this will have long-lasting impacts, not only on their lives but on the island,” said Juliette Ramírez Corazón, advising dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I’ve seen how these relationships stick. They have a network now that will connect them with Cornell.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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