Si Se Puede
Seven of the nine Puerto Rican students in the class of 2020 gathered for this photo just days before they thought they’d be heading out for spring break. Instead, the campus shut down and most headed back home. From left, back row: Alejandro Rodriguez, Sofia Nieto, Eduardo Abreu, Javier Gomez; front row: Greishka Cordero, Alexandra Aponte, Francisco Fadhel.
This class of seniors (and near-seniors) had already weathered a number of major storms before the pandemic hit.
When Alexandra Aponte ’20 (ENG) spoke to her mom on the night of September 19, 2017, she wasn’t too concerned about Puerto Rico.
Talks of yet another hurricane were circling the news, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma had hit the island, but Aponte knew to think twice before panicking. Born and raised on the island, Aponte lived through various hurricane warnings for storms that would either slow down drastically by the time they hit the island or miss it all together. In fact, the running joke, she says, was that Puerto Rico had a magic shield that protected it from tropical storms. So when she hung up with her mom, she was convinced she’d hear from her first thing in the morning, and once again the hurricane would have been all talk.
But when she woke up there was no call.
Aponte wasn’t alone. Eight other students from Puerto Rico, who started at UConn with her in 2016, were in the same predicament — some unable to reach their families and friends for hours and others for several weeks.
Nearly a category 5 hurricane, with winds at 155 mph, Hurricane Maria became the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years. Causing widespread destruction, Maria left millions without electricity or clean water for months and caused nearly 3,000 fatalities, a number reported much later in an independent study by George Washington University.
When all nine students committed to UConn they did so in hopes of tapping into greater opportunities. And, of course, as they settled in freshman year they were prepared to find their fair share of hurdles, even more than the average student. From speaking English every day to seeing snow for the first time, their experience was similar to that of international students, they say, with the exception of holding a U.S. passport.
But Hurricane Maria was one challenge none of them could foresee. Just weeks after starting their sophomore year here, their friends and families were shaken like never before, 1,633 miles away. And all they could do was watch from the sidelines.
“The hardest part for all of us was not being able to take a boots-on-the-ground approach. All we had were pictures and videos showing us a Puerto Rico that we didn’t recognize,” says Diego Rivera ’21 (ENG).
Classes were missed, exams were failed, and campus leaders were stumped in the face of uncertainty. But when they could have given up and returned home, they pushed forward.
Inspired by the catastrophe, they were more determined than ever to not only graduate in hopes of returning to Puerto Rico one day to make a difference, but also to represent their island the only way they knew how — with resilience.
“Being Puerto Rican means staying positive, finding joy in even the simplest of situations, and looking out for one another,” says Javier Gomez ’20 (CLAS).
“That’s exactly how we got through Hurricane Maria. Friends became family and we all helped each other from there on out. We become one in the name of the island.”
Three years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has experienced several other turbulent moments, including a change in government, earthquakes, and more recently, of course, the devastating effects of Covid-19. But with each experience, these students say both they and their island have grown stronger.
Indeed, this is the most decorated senior class of Puerto Ricans UConn has seen. From working as guides at the Visitor’s Center to excelling in the Honors Programs, these Huskies have made their mark across campus.
Typically, an average of two to three students directly from Puerto Rico drop out of UConn each year for a variety of reasons, says Aida Silva, Senior Associate Director of Admissions. This is one of the largest groups to graduate in a long time, she says, and one of the most accomplished. She can’t wait to see what they do next.
We caught up with all nine students just before campus closed and most headed home. With one of the country’s strictest lockdowns, Puerto Rico has aimed to keep Covid-19 cases at bay by enforcing a curfew and travel ban among other things. Like the rest of the graduating class of 2020, they were unable to celebrate their accomplishments at Gampel Pavilion. While sad, they agreed it was for the best.
“Obviously commencement is important because it’s a celebration of us. But this small sacrifice to save lives is worth it. We’ve gone through so much that this is nothing to me,” Daniel Cintron ’20 (CLAS) told us.
And virtual graduation gave them the chance to celebrate with friends and family, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. “While this is not what I expected, I think this is how it had to happen,” said Aponte. “No better place to graduate than the island that shaped me.”
“When she hung up with her mom, she was convinced she’d hear from her first thing in the morning and once again the hurricane would have been all talk.”
Alexandra Aponte ’20 (ENG)
Since the moment Aponte set foot on campus, she saw the value in student involvement. She has been a key player in the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center, a STEM Scholar, an event coordinator, and the president of the Puerto Rican Student Association (PuRSA).
But overall her greatest accomplishment, she says, was as chairperson for the Student Development Committee in the Undergraduate Student Government. There she was influential in starting conversations about culture and identity at UConn through an initiative she helped create, the Cultural Awareness Series.
“Attending and graduating UConn is the easy part,” Aponte says. “The challenge is occupying spaces you wouldn’t often see minority students in. If you don’t see yourself represented somewhere, you make space for yourself and get things done.”
She’ll start with a job in Connecticut, joining Pfizer as a manufacturing engineer later this year.
Diego Rivera ’21 (ENG)
Influencing infrastructure policy in Puerto Rico is Diego Rivera’s long-term goal. It would combine his three passions: engineering, politics, and his home.
As an Honors civil engineering student with a minor in political science and mathematics on a pre-law track, Rivera spent the last academic year everywhere but the classroom. Fall semester he completed a co-op with Apex Companies in South Windsor, Connecticut. Spring found him in Washington, D.C., interning in the office of Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), where his tasks included giving tours of the U.S. Capitol — a job familiar to Rivera, who has been a UConn tour guide since sophomore year.
Rivera’s internships and travels mean he will need a fifth year to complete his academics, and says he’s excited to return to UConn, especially the Visitor’s Center.
“I hope to be a motivation to potential students during my tours. If I came from Puerto Rico without knowing what to expect, they can do it too — especially if they’re from New England,” he says.
Javier Gomez ’20 (CLAS)
As a kid, Gomez remembers his grandfather encouraging him to always be a helping hand. At UConn he kept this in mind.
Whether he was giving rides to classmates in need or translating for full-time dining services kitchen staff, he was known for his reliability. By his senior year he was promoted to student manager at Buckley Dining Hall, while continuing to ace his biology courses.
Post-graduation, he plans to take a gap year to work in a hospital in Puerto Rico and hopes to then embark on his next journey: dental school. He’d like to open his own pediatric practice one day.
Sofia Nieto ’20 (CLAS)
If you had told Nieto during her Husky-for-a-Day experience that, upon graduating from UConn, her list of accomplishments would include being a STEM Scholar and the first Puerto Rican admitted to a Special Program in Law and founding her own nonprofit in Puerto Rico, she never would have believed it.
But that’s the beauty of college and liberal arts, she says. She started as an Honors chemistry student and found a passion for immigration and civil rights law along the way. Nieto’s nonprofit organization, Mujeres Poder, is the individualized project she did as part of UConn’s first cohort of the BOLD Women’s Leadership Network.
Based in Puerto Rico, Mujeres Poder provides resources to existing women’s nonprofits, making information easily accessible to the public.
“I see these women leading organizations in Puerto Rico as pioneers, and I want to be able to give back any way I can,” says Nieto.
“Obviously commencement is important because it’s a celebration of us. But this small sacrifice to save lives is worth it.”—Daniel Cintron ’20 (CLAS)
Eduardo Abreu ’20 (CLAS)
Unlike the other students who came directly from Puerto Rico, Abreu and his family moved to New Jersey a week before his freshman year of high school. As a son of Dominican parents raised in Puerto Rico, he was always very proud of his identity. But he admits to losing sight of his roots in high school, as one of only three Latinos amid hundreds of students.
It wasn’t until he started at UConn, he says, that he felt at home again, surrounded by many other students who understood his childhood in Guayana, Puerto Rico. Abreu was a biological science major on a pre-PA track, the social media coordinator for PuRSA, and a UConn tour guide.
As a guide, he says he made it a point to highlight UConn’s six cultural centers and programs and the added support they provide to minority students, such as him.
Daniel Cintron ’20 (CLAS)
Growing up in San Juan, just a three-minute drive from Ocean Park Beach, you could always find Cintron by the shore, he says. But when he returned this past December to the same spot he used to frequent, there was no shore to enjoy. He doesn’t know the exact cause, but he suspects climate change. We’re starting to witness the effects worldwide, especially in small islands like Puerto Rico, he says.
Finding solutions is Cintron’s passion — stemming from his time as a chemistry student. He worked with animal minerals as an intern with Synchrom in Minnesota and mesoporous materials in the UConn research lab of professor Jie He. He hopes a recent contribution to a science journal, Advanced Functional Materials Journal, is just the first of many. He’d like to combat climate change, perhaps helping make solar panels more affordable to consumers, especially in Puerto Rico. Post-graduation he’ll pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.
Greishka Cordero ’20 (CLAS)
Cordero has always wanted to be a doctor, and she’s well on her way. She’ll be attending UConn School of Medicine in the fall, as the first Puerto Rican admitted into the Honors Special Program in Medicine.
She hopes to become an obstetrician-gynecologist in Puerto Rico to advocate for the health and reproductive rights of women, especially women of color. Doctors have left the island in alarming numbers in the last few years, leaving a population of about 3.4 million people with limited access to health care.
“It may be hard for physicians on the island right now, but it will be worth it,” she says. “It’s my duty as a Puerto Rican to give back to my community.”
Francisco Fadhel ’21 (ENG)
Fadhel, a civil engineering major, says he couldn’t have imagined these last four years without his friends from the island. His favorite event at UConn by far was Noche Boricua, which celebrates Puerto Rican culture and shares food and traditions with others at UConn. Like Rivera, Fadhel will be returning to UConn for a fifthyear and plans to work in engineering in Florida after graduation, before eventually returning to Puerto Rico.
Alejandro Rodriguez ’20 (CLAS)
Being a student tour guide was much more than just a job for Rodriguez. From the moment he transferred junior year from Fordham University, he saw it as an opportunity to learn about, and advocate for, his newfound passion — UConn. His friends started calling him the “Visitor’s Center King of Facts.”
Rodriguez has advocacy in mind with his history major and double minor in philosophy and Latino and Latin American studies. Though his family now lives in Woodbridge, Connecticut, he plans to get a law degree and then return to Puerto Rico to work in public policy.
During his two years at UConn he was instrumental in a wide range of research and won a SHARE grant for his project “Puerto Rican Heritage Trail,” exploring Puerto Rican migration to Hartford.
Rodriguez says that wherever his career takes him he will always be proud of his time as a tour guide and influencing others to love UConn as much as he does.
By CAMILA VALLEJO ’19 (CLAS)
Photo by Peter Morenus