By Jamie Swinnerton
Jose De Jesus Szendrey had never seen snow until he arrived in Ithaca to attend a tuition-free semester at Cornell University. He’s still adjusting to the bitter cold temperatures.
Szendrey and 61 other students from the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) arrived on campus in mid-January. They were greeted by hand-knit hats, gloves and scarves, courtesy of Cornell students, staff, and alumni who know all too well how cold the Ithaca campus can get in the winter.
“The scarf and hat they gave me have really helped me,” Szendrey said.
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, colleges and universities across the country have been offering to accommodate Puerto Rican students. Cornell University is no exception. Initially, the school was only going to accept 50 undergraduate students and eight graduate students from UPR for one semester of free tuition, room, and board.
“We tried to accept as many students who we thought would really benefit from the experience, that we had room for in the residence halls,” said Glenn Altschuler, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions (SCESS). “When we got a number of highly qualified students applying, we tried to stretch as much as we could and accepted some additional students.”
Following the hurricane, Cornell reached out to the president of UPR, Darrel Hillman, to talk about how the university could help. President Hillman suggested that Cornell accept UPR students for a semester, Altschuler said. This is not the first time that Cornell has offered such an opportunity.
“People in Puerto Rico have suffered mightily and we are a fellow institution of higher education,” Altschuler said. “We’ve reached out before. Following Hurricane Katrina, Cornell reached out and accepted students from institutions in New Orleans. That’s what people should do. Reach out to help people who are in need.”
Szendrey, who was studying Advertising Design back in Puerto Rico, found out about the opportunity to apply for the tuition-free semester to Cornell through social media.
“I remember I was in my house,” Szendrey said. “I literally had no electricity or running water. All I had was a little bit of data signal on my phone. I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw one of my oldest friends – I remember I went to elementary school with her – and she shared a Facebook post that said they were looking for funds for Puerto Rican students.”
After following the link to the fundraiser, Szendrey found another link for UPR students to apply for the semester.
“As soon as I saw it I got all the information they required and I applied,” he said. “And also, Cornell as an Ivy League really did motivate me even more. My mother studied at an Ivy League university, which really inspired me. You know, it’s not often that Ivy Leagues offer one full free semester ride.”
Tuition, room, and board are all free, and the initial fundraiser will offset other costs the students might have, including winter clothes, books, and living expenses. The people, Szendrey said, have all been helpful and welcoming. It’s the weather that he has a problem with.
“It’s such a drastic change from Puerto Rico,” he said. “This is actually my first snow and I’m not used to it so I really do hate the cold, I’m going to be honest. But it’s been nice. The people here at Cornell have been really welcoming to us Puerto Ricans.”
But the weather isn’t the only difference Szendrey has found. Before coming to Cornell, he said he had never taken classes with more than 30 other students now he’s taking classes with more than 100 students.
“It’s a really different atmosphere, obviously, back from the Universidad de Puerto Rico,” he said. “This being an Ivy League, you can feel the tension in the air.”
Following the hurricane, his UPR campus was without running water or electricity for weeks. Thankfully, Szendrey’s family is ok. His parents are divorced and only his mom’s house has electricity. His dad still has to keep buying gas, which is expensive. His sister is in tenth grade and her high school only got electricity again a few days ago.
“So, she has been without electricity for more than 100 days I believe,” he said.
Puerto Rico is a strong island, he said, and in time it will rebuild. Right now, he wants Cornell to know just how thankful he is for the opportunity he’s been given.
Faculty, staff, alumni and current students have all offered to help the students from UPR make a smooth transition to life on the Ithaca campus, Altschuler said.
“We’ve worked with the students before they came. Each of the students has been assigned an undergrad mentor,” Altschuler said. “The Puerto Rican Students Association at Cornell has really stepped up and many students have volunteered to be mentors, as have other students. There is also a Latino organization of students in the sciences who’ve offered to be mentors and even perhaps provide some tutoring.”
Each college has appointed an assistant dean or faculty member as a faculty advisor, guiding the students through selecting courses. The UPR students also received a special orientation when they arrived, in addition to the regular orientation held before classes began.
“It’s been an effort that has involved many, many hundreds of people,” Altschuler said. “Alumni, as well as those of us on campus and in the community.”