College to welcome students from the University of Puerto Rico for summer research

In response to the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria, the College will be hosting five students and a faculty member from the University of Puerto Rico for a summer research program that will run parallel to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and Allison Davis Research Fellowship Summer Research Colloquium this summer.

This is not the first time the College has hosted students in the wake of a natural disaster. In the fall of 2005, the College, in conjunction with Amherst, hosted nearly two dozen pre-medicine students from Xavier University of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“This historically black institution has a phenomenal record of placing students in medical school, and it was painful to think that such an important pipeline might be broken for a while,” then-President Morton Schapiro and Amherst President Anthony Marx wrote in an email at the time.

Within the weeks following Hurricane Maria, Director of Special Academic Programs Molly Magavern and Professor of Latino/a and American Studies Mérida M. Rúa began corresponding with a contact through the Mellon Foundation at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. Determined to help effectively, Magavern and Rúa were hoping to reach the two major higher-education institutions that were most affected in the region – the University of Puerto Rico system and the University of the Virgin Islands.

Getting in contact, however, proved challenging, as the lack of electricity in the region meant that there were extremely limited forms of communication. As a result, Magavern and Rúa focused their efforts on the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus.

“They were going through a lot because they were trying to get the university up and running,” Rua said. “So we slowed down, and we said, ‘Why don’t you figure out what you all want to do over there first and then what role can we play? … We really wanted to be in partnership with them and not in any way or form encourage a brain drain or encourage students to leave the University of Puerto Rico when they really needed them there.”

Initially, the College had considered inviting some students from the University of Puerto Rico to complete their spring semester at the College. Several schools, including Amherst, Brown and Cornell, had already begun implementing such programs to support students whose studies and lives were disrupted by the hurricane (“In other ivory towers: news around academia,” Feb. 14, 2018). This was ruled out as an option, however, because the University of Puerto Rico was reluctant to send its undergraduate students abroad. Conflicts in scheduling also emerged as a complicating factor.

“When it became clear that the university was reopening in late October, their preference was for students to remain enrolled at [the university] for the school year,” Magavern said.

Instead, the University of Puerto Rico requested help with its summer research program, which had been jeopardized by the hurricane damage.

“We were told that the most help would be if we could help them with their summer research program because their libraries aren’t fully functioning, there isn’t very good internet connection and interlibrary loan is practically nonexistent,” Rúa said. “And since we already have the Allison Davis and Mellon program, we thought we could just run a parallel program.”

Similar to the Mellon Mays and Allison Davis fellows, the visiting students will spend six weeks on campus from June 11 to July 21 receiving instruction on developing advanced research skills. Meanwhile, the university’s visiting faculty member will be conducting their respective research. The College has committed to providing financial assistance for room and board, airfare, activities and additional living expenses. The cohort of visiting students will be selected in mid-March.

“This will be a great learning experience for everybody. An exchange like this always is,” Magavern said. “For our fellows, who are in this very small liberal arts college, to hear about the experiences of students at a larger university will be beneficial, and for the University of Puerto Rico students, this offers a unique opportunity to spend the summer conducting research and utilizing our library and other resources.”

Already, several prospective and current fellows are eager to welcome the students and are looking forward to spending the summer with them. Rúa hopes that this initiative will also encourage students to critically consider the complicated and unequal relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.

In addition to this effort, the College is already hosting a visiting faculty member for the semester from the University of the Virgin Islands to pursue their research through the Oakley Center. Professor of Art Mari Rodriguez Binnie has also been working with MASS MoCA to host Puerto Rican artists during the summer.

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