Commencement was two days away and Karina Lasalle Arroyo had hauled out nearly seven months’ worth of luggage from her time in Connecticut.
She stood in a dormitory parking lot and confirmed she was ready to go home.
“More than ready,” Lasalle, 21, said with a laugh.
When Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico last September, Lasalle was in her final year at the University of Puerto Rico and thinking ahead to law school. But the widespread damage altered the trajectory of these best-laid plans. The storm knocked out power, and Lasalle’s night classes — courses she needed to graduate — were rescheduled to the same hour on a Saturday.
“They just told me to choose,” said Lasalle, who wants to be a prosecutor someday. “Everyone had like maybe two, three classes in the same hour, but I had all of them.”
As she contemplated what to do, a public university in the small city of New Britain, Connecticut, had placed an ad in the biggest newspaper in Puerto Rico. Central Connecticut State University was inviting college students on the island to take classes on the mainland, at least temporarily.
CCSU called its new program Airbridge and ultimately enrolled about 30 Puerto Rican evacuees as transfer students. Lasalle jumped at the offer, flying in at the end of October.
Lasalle’s mother, Palmira Arroyo, was stunned because until that point, her youngest child had never moved away from home.
“First, I thought it was like a crazy idea,” Arroyo recalled last week. “I was like, ‘What? What are you going to do?’ … . I thought it was going to be difficult to be far away from home.”
But Arroyo felt más tranquila, a bit more at ease, she said, when she heard that one of her daughter’s track and field teammates from the University of Puerto Rico would be on the same journey, too. They became college roommates in Connecticut.
Still, Arroyo offered some mom advice.
“Don’t look back,” she said. “Think with your mind and not with your heart.”
Arroyo knew that her daughter’s heart was in Puerto Rico…and with her. Arroyo, a financial aid director on the island, said she was going through a divorce at the time, but assured her daughter that “everything’s fine, I’m happy,” because anything less and Lasalle would have returned home to be with her.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m OK, don’t worry,’” Arroyo said.
At first, Lasalle planned to move back to Puerto Rico after the winter term. But if she continued through the spring, she’d have enough credits to graduate from CCSU with a degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice. So her mother promised to come for graduation.
‘Part of Our Family’
Arroyo got in at 4 a.m. on the Thursday before the May 19 commencement, slept a few hours and drove to campus in a rental car to get her daughter’s things.
“I know she wants to go home because of me and the family and she loves her island,” Arroyo said. “But I told her that she has to go search for her goals, and if she has to stay here and look for something here, she has my support.”
Two days later, they joined thousands of people at a big sports arena in downtown Hartford, some wearing their caps and gowns. Lasalle decorated her cap with a flag of Puerto Rico and this message: “Flying high but I never forget where I’m from!”
When it was Lasalle’s turn to cross the stage at the CCSU commencement, university President Zulma Toro pulled her into a warm hug, kind of how a proud abuela would. Toro is also Puerto Rican. But aside from the congratulations, Lasalle and her roommate Joandra Vazquez, another hurricane evacuee who graduated, didn’t want any special attention.
“They consider themselves part of the community and I think they didn’t want to be called out today, which I understand,” said Courtney McDavid, Toro’s executive assistant. McDavid was among the college staffers who became close to the Airbridge students.
“We welcomed them and we consider them part of our family now,” McDavid said.
After the ceremony, Lasalle’s mother said the graduation felt like a validation.
“I’m so happy, I’m very excited,” Arroyo said. She added with a laugh: “I see that, well, I think I did a good job.”
The next morning, mom and daughter had a plane to catch to Puerto Rico. But Lasalle has followed her mother’s advice and kept her options open.
She plans to be back in Connecticut this fall as an intern for a U.S. senator.
This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.