Alberto Hernández knows what it is like to blow the transmission of his decrepit 2000 Camry and leave it rusting and catching dust at home for a year, all because he did not have the money to get it running. He knows what it is like to miss a semester of class in the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) for not having transportation and not being eligible for the scholarship upon his return, since he had dropped out during the previous semester.
“The car hasn’t broken down lately,” Alberto says with relief, during a conversation in the building of the Faculty of Social Sciences, where he studies Economy.
It could be worse, and he knows it. “There were days when I only ate Pop Tarts,” says Alberto, 22. He knows what it is like to study hungry. He knows what it is like to spend a whole day in class, studying under a tree, talking with friends, with only a Pop Tart and its sugars and carbs dissolving in his stomach, trying unsuccessfully to distract himself from that nagging hunger.
He knows that those days are almost as long as the year his car spent stuck in his driveway, because a hot meal will not be available when he gets to his home in Vega Baja—where he lives alone with his mother—long after dusk, to see what is there to eat.
Alberto is poor. He is a poor student. There are thousands like him in the UPR, where—despite the myth that its strict admission requirements mean it is the university of the middle-class or the privileged class—more than a quarter of its students come from families with an annual income of less than $10,000, which places them below the federal poverty level, set at $11,880 for a single person.
Statistics of the UPR Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs reveal that 28% of the 55,425 undergraduate students come from homes with an income of less than $10,000 per year. In addition, 42% come from homes with an income under $25,000, which, depending on the family composition, means it is very likely that many more also fall below the poverty threshold.
A family of three with an annual income of $25,000 or less falls under the federal poverty line. And 70% of UPR students receive financial aid. Meanwhile, 27,528 students—which totals half of the institution’s 55,425 population—receive the total sum of the Pell Grant ($5,818 per year), because it is understood that their families, due to their financial situation, cannot contribute a single cent to their studies.
The UPR does not have data on how many of its students live below the poverty threshold. But the statistics they do have, like the family income of those who apply for financial aid, indicate that we are looking at a college population that is significantly poor or that comes from the long list of Puerto Rican homes that live in extremely unstable financial situations.
Education in the Balance
These are the young adults that, in taking time to prepare themselves and contribute to the development of the country, have trouble eating properly. We know there are some who do not have a permanent place to live because they do not have the means to pay for it, and they rotate between their friends’ homes. These are the ones that leave no stone unturned in the search for a used book, even if it is falling apart. These are the ones that wear the same clothes to class every day.
“This country has been living a lie for years, thinking that there’s no poverty or hunger in Puerto Rico. What’s happening in the UPR matters because it uncovers the fact that this isn’t the case in Puerto Rico or in the UPR. The university is a microcosm of Puerto Rico’s situation,” said former student leader Giovanni Robert, who now leads Comedor Social (Social Diner), an initiative that provides meals to students who would otherwise be unable to eat.
The situation affecting thousands of students who—amid poverty, uncertainty, and even hunger—keep fighting for the chance to make a better future for themselves through education, is especially relevant now. This, because the UPR could face cuts of almost $450 million (a figure equal to 50% of its budget), following the requirements of the Oversight Board, and it is considering increasing tuition costs as part of the balancing act it is performing to meet this target.
Alberto—who has not gone hungry in campus again after finding Comedor Social, where he eats in exchange for a suggested contribution of $5, donating an ingredient, or volunteering with the group that serves meals—lives on the remainder of approximately $1,000 per semester.
This leaves him with $250 a month. He spends almost $35 a week, or $140 a month, in gas for his car. This leaves him with $110 per month for his expenses. If nothing unforeseen comes up, he can survive. But if something does, he will be short on cash. And often he will have to buy a book, materials for a project, or something will go wrong with the old car, which worries him the most.
His mother, a speech therapist who only gets paid occasionally, bought the car for him so he could keep studying after the increase in the Tren Urbano (Urban Train) fare made that mode of transportation unviable. “If nothing happens to my car all semester, I’m good,” says Alberto, in a tone that is closer to a plea than an affirmation.
Carolina Mejías, 27, grew up in the Río Abajo barrio in Vega Baja with her mother—who lost her job after a factory closing—and her sister. Her father is a drug addict and is unable to contribute to her education. Carolina studied Political Science and Recreation, while earning medals for the UPR’s soccer team. She is currently doing a master’s degree in Cultural Administration and Management.
She used to get a scholarship and receive a tuition exemption for being an athlete. But this did not save her from poverty.
“Studying in my house was a privilege, because my mother was single and I didn’t want to worry her, so I tried to pay for my expenses myself with my scholarship. The demands of my studies sometimes required me to buy books that I couldn’t find second-hand. Food was kind of expensive because (my housemates and I) didn’t have cars and we couldn’t go to the supermarket,” she remembers.
“Sometimes we only ate Chinese soups to save money,” added Carolina, who is now an exchange student in Spain. “A lot of students are going through hard times,” says Carolina, who remembers classmates who had to drop out because they could not handle the economic burden.
The proposal being pondered by UPR administrators to meet the Oversight Board’s demands includes an increase in the cost per credit hour, from $56 to $70 for those who receive the Pell grant, and from $56 to $78 for those who pay for their own studies. This would increase the cost of a 15-credit semester from $840 to $1,050 for scholarship students, and to $1,170 for students without financial aid.
Christhian Cruz, a 20-year-old Communications student from the El Cemí housing project in Santa Isabel, smiles sadly at this possibility. Since he was little, he has been dreaming about the world of communications and show business. He first enrolled in the University of the Sacred Heart (USC, by its Spanish acronym), because they said that “they go on strike over anything at the UPR”.
He lasted one year at USC. “I left because I thought that, at some point, I would have to go into debt and I didn’t want to do that. Maybe now I’ll have to,” says Christhian, whose mother is unemployed and whose father, with whom he has not lived since he was little, works in an auto glass shop.
Students, says Giovanni Roberto, do not lose hope, and “even though they don’t have enough to have lunch every day and dinner every day, they dream about making a difference in Puerto Rico. They go to college every day with the desire to move forward and be better”.