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University On Island Recruits Puerto Ricans From Mainland
By Matthew Hay Brown
January 17, 2005
CAYEY, PUERTO RICO -- Sitting down at the desk in her student apartment, Shary Cruz Morales felt frustration, even anger.
Growing up on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the 18-year-old learned household Spanish from her Puerto Rican mother. But school always had been in English -- until now.
With a translating dictionary and an encyclopedia at her side, it was taking the college freshman five hours to get through a 10-page reading assignment.
"I remember telling my mom, 'I spent 12 years mastering school in English, and now I have to learn it in Spanish,' " said Cruz, now beginning her second semester studying humanities at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey. "I'm a good student. . . . I just had to force myself to do it."
Such are the challenges confronting participants of a new program now attracting Puerto Ricans in the United States to study at this leafy liberal-arts campus in the central mountains of their Caribbean homeland.
Called the Bilingual Initiative for Hispanic Students, it was created to address the comparatively low levels of educational attainment among stateside Puerto Ricans while building the university's reputation on the mainland.
In the second year of the program, eight students from throughout the United States mainland now are studying economics, humanities and other subjects at Cayey.
This week, program officials will be in New York to recruit high-school seniors for the fall semester -- and they are welcoming students from other Puerto Rican enclaves throughout the country, such as Central Florida.
"We are interested in Hispanic students from anywhere in the U.S.," said Pedro Sandín, director of the office of students at Cayey. "Our vision is for the University of Puerto Rico to become the Howard University of Hispanics."
Howard University is a historically black institution in Washington, D.C. Toward meeting that goal, Cayey Chancellor Rafael Aragunde Torres wants to see enrollment in the bilingual initiative double in each of the next two years.
"We would like Puerto Ricans to feel that they have a prestigious university that can defend them," said Aragunde, the top administrator at this campus of 3,650 students. "We would like to feel that not only Puerto Ricans but Latinos have a college or university that responds to them, that is particularly sensitive to their needs and will help them as much as possible."
The program has been a good fit for Rebecca Artz López. The 17-year-old freshman, who lived on the island during two separate two-year stretches as a child, wanted so much to return here for college that she finished high school a year early.
"Even though I wasn't born on the island, I feel like I'm from here," said the humanities major, whose mother is from Bayamón but who graduated from high school in Fort Worth, Texas.
The experience has been more challenging for Joshua Lynch Ramírez. The 19-year-old economics major passed up admission to such prestigious schools as Williams College, the University of Chicago and Claremont McKenna College to come to Cayey.
The only Puerto Rican in his grade through 12 years of schooling in Memphis, Tenn., he spoke little Spanish when he arrived on campus in August.
"It's improving, but not as much as I'd like," said Lynch Ramírez, who is earning money on campus tutoring classmates in English. "I'm sure it's a lot better than I think it is. Teachers have been pretty accommodating. I rely on classmates."
The plan had been to offer a first year of classes in English along with intensive training in Spanish to help the participants ease into their studies. But Aragunde, who helped recruit the students and meets with them regularly, said the university thought this group could manage in Spanish.
For next year, he said, they are looking to recruit faculty members to teach in English both to next year's freshman participants and students from the general population who are interested.
But language has not been the only challenge for the stateside students.
Even Artz López, with her island-accented Spanish and her affinity for the tropical life -- the sounds of salsa and reggaeton, the tastes of lechón and rice and beans -- said she was "scared" that she wouldn't fit in.
Cruz Morales, with whom Artz López has become close friends, speaks of students at the library mocking them when they spoke to each other in English, or classmates who would giggle when she needed to ask the meaning of an unfamiliar but probably ordinary Spanish word.
Aragunde, whose academic background is in philosophy, said the mainlanders may challenge the islanders' understanding of their identity -- another benefit of the program.
"We are the ones that have to learn to deal with the fact that sometimes they don't speak Spanish as we speak it, that they have an accent or that they don't speak it at all," he said. "It's important to bring in people to challenge our notions of what it means to be Puerto Rican."
The Bilingual Initiative is one of several recent efforts by the government of this U.S. territory to reach out to the growing population of stateside Puerto Ricans. A voter-registration drive signed up more than 300,000 stateside voters before the November U.S. elections. Leadership workshops have trained mainland-based activists and community organizers. And the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, an agency of the island government based in Washington, recently published an in-depth study of the population.
In that study, called the Atlas of Stateside Puerto Ricans, the political scientist Angelo Falcón suggested the 11-campus University of Puerto Rico could help address the low levels of higher-education attainment among Puerto Ricans in the United States.
In one of the few indicators in which the mainland population lags behind that of the island, just 9.9 percent of stateside Puerto Ricans in 2000 had earned a four-year college degree, compared with 24.4 percent in Puerto Rico. By 2003, the percentage of bachelor's degrees among the mainland population had grown to 13.1 percent, but that was still well behind the percentages among whites and blacks in the United States and Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico.
Falcón, senior policy executive at the Puerto Rico Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said he was unaware of the Bilingual Initiative when he wrote his report.
"The more you involve stateside Puerto Ricans and their families with feeling that somehow their destiny is tied to the future of Puerto Rico, that's good thing for Puerto Rico," he said. "There are many Puerto Ricans here who are very proud of being Puerto Rican and would be probably very motivated students within this kind of program."
Despite her fears, Artz López said acceptance hasn't been a problem. Cruz Morales now is friends with the giggling classmates and said she has no regrets about coming here.
"It's important to me to know my culture," she said. "I like this campus. We go to the beach, go to the mall, drive around. Teachers are understanding of the language barrier. I would recommend it to anyone."