Rutgers—Newark students share experiences from trip to Puerto Rico
Last week, at the Dana Library on the Rutgers—Newark campus, 10 University students and two administrators discussed their experiences installing solar power technology and cultivating crops in Puerto Rico as part of the University's Alternative Breaks program.
During the presentation, the 10 students highlighted areas in which they learned from, served and impacted the Puerto Rican community. They also spoke about their experiences with cultural immersion and the organizations they worked alongside.
Malikka Hutchins, the senior program coordinator of the Office of Global Initiatives and Experiential Learning at Rutgers—Newark, said the program's objective was to maintain its previous work in Puerto Rico and introduce underrepresented students to a new culture.
"The primary goal of this initiative is to engage various forms of grassroots leadership within Puerto Rico and their approach to implementing community-based services for under-resourced areas impacted by Hurricane Maria," Hutchins said.
In 2018, a previous group of Rutgers—Newark students traveled to the island to install "We Share Solar" suitcases in areas affected by the hurricane. The suitcases, a solar-powered energy source, were installed in community centers and cancer health care facilities.
To sustain those efforts and aid the island after Hurricane Fiona in 2022, University students traveled back to Puerto Rico under the guidance of Hutchins and Izzy Mir, a program coordinator for the Office of Student Life and Leadership at Rutgers—Newark.
Mir said the group learned much about Puerto Rican heritage and identity from their tour guide, Carlos "Tato" Torres. He taught the group about the Taínos, Puerto Rico's indigenous population, and about the West African enslaved people brought to the island by Spain. Torres said the trip especially impacted him due to his Puerto Rican identity.
"I was really happy to share the positive parts of my culture with my students, but also show them the need of the island and inspire them to continue giving back and not just to Puerto Rico but their own communities, here, Newark or wherever their hometown is … if you have the ability to you should give back to those who have less than you do," he said.
Pratik Patel, a Rutgers Business School senior, said the group would begin each morning of the trip with a bus ride around the island to help install new suitcases and collect data on previous ones. They would travel across mountainous regions which were especially impacted by the hurricanes.
Patel said his most memorable time on the island was learning Bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance style. He said that seeing people come together and enjoy each other's company was especially interesting.
"We got to see the entire generation of cultures come. Whether you were a kid or a grandparent, they're all coming together, and with that, it's something you don't see here all the time," he said. "Where over there, It's like everyone's one family. Everyone's wanting to always be together … no matter what happened, whether it's (Hurricane) Maria, whether it's at the end of the day, it's happiness smiles and just bringing everyone together."
Eren Kahyaoglu, a Rutgers—Newark School of Arts and Science first-year, said that during the trip, the group would travel multiple hours to their work locations from their temporary residence in Guayanilla. He said the Puerto Rican cities the group visited were vastly different from any cities he has lived in before.
"When we went to the city, for example, we saw all these colorful buildings, and we noticed that it was nothing compared to America at all, especially New Jersey and New York with all those tall buildings, etc.," he said. "It's more of a rural place, even the city side etc. It has a different atmosphere there, especially temperature-wise as well."
Kahyaoglu said the team completed most of their work outside, working on roofs fixing solar panels and in agricultural fields using machetes.
"I will never forget the faces of the people that we will help with because they were so happy because they are having trouble finding light, especially at night time. So it was a satisfying moment to see that. And I would love to help more people in the future and see those smiling faces again," he said.