The most harrowing experience of my life
Displaced Puerto Rican student writes about fighting to stay in college after Hurricane Maria.
My name is Camila. I’m a student from Humacao, Puerto Rico.
On September 20, 2017, I went through the most harrowing experience of my life. Hurricane Maria hit and devastated my island. My family and I spent months with very limited resources. No water, no electricity and very little food.
This catastrophic event changed everything. I was in the middle of my semester at the University of Puerto Rico. Studying under those conditions became too challenging. In order to continue with my degree in architecture, I had to suddenly transfer to another college.
With encouragement from my family and the people of Puerto Rico, and with help from great friends in New York and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), I connected with institutions opening their doors to students from Puerto Rico. I was accepted to the California College of the Arts (CCA). It wasn’t easy because of the cost, but with much sacrifice, I enrolled in CCA and relocated to San Francisco, California.
I'm currently working very hard to complete my bachelor’s degree, but it is challenging. Scholarships are difficult to secure. Art supplies and housing are expensive. I had to leave the student dorms because of the price. I have been looking for somewhere else to stay for months — I’m completely alone here without any family or friends.
I love studying, I love architecture, I love books and I know I’m capable of doing great things. But it is exhausting to have to fight so hard just to be able to go to school. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing or if everything will be OK. I wonder how many other students are forced out of school so they can pay their bills. I wonder how many other students can’t afford food at the end of the day.
My dream is to become a practitioner and focus on environmental design so I can develop productive and sustainable projects. My interest in architecture began when I was a child — I wanted to solve the problems I saw in society.
Witnessing how the hurricane destroyed our infrastructure has made me even more determined to give back to my community. After eight months without electricity in our house, my family in Puerto Rico got the power back, but it’s still really unstable. We need buildings that can stand hurricane conditions and structures that can provide better shelter.
My plan is to create an impact in the design industry not only with new buildings, but with a new perspective of what should be our priorities as a society. It shouldn’t be so hard to get an architecture degree — particularly for women of color. It shouldn’t take so long to provide citizens with access to basic utilities. When I’m an architect — and I know that one day I will become one — I will fight to change these injustices.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Camila Cruz is an architecture student from Puerto Rico. After she completes her degree, she plans to return to her island to help create sustainable buildings and infrastructure.