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College finds a connection with students in Puerto Rico

October 14, 2020
portrait of Brian Basu standing outside Rush Rhees LibraryBrian Basu '21 is one several Puerto Rican college students displaced by Hurricane Maria who came to Rochester in 2018 for a guest semester then stayed as a fulltime student. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)
Puerto Rican students who arrived as guests after Hurricane Maria have made their mark on campus—and helped the College attract more students from the island.

Fate brought Brian Basu ’21 to the University of Rochester in 2018.

Intention brought him back.

The international relations major was among eight students from Puerto Rico who attended the University for a “guest semester” in spring 2018, all expenses paid, after Hurricane Maria destroyed their college campuses back home.

When the semester ended, Basu joined Syanis Vargas Gonzalez ’21, Claudine DaNeri De Leon ’21, and Mariana Ortiz ’21 in applying to transfer to Rochester as full-time students. All four were accepted, and all are on track to graduate in May.

“I fell in love with everything here,” Basu says. “The campus, the ambiance, the environment, even the weather. You get tired of 85 to 100-degree days in Puerto Rico. This is an amazing place.”

Basu has made his mark at Rochester. He’s the founder and president of both the Puerto Rican Student Organization and Prelaw Society (now with more than 50 and 100 members, respectively), serves as a residential advisor at Riverview Apartments, and works in the Office of the Dean of the College. This fall he’s applying to law schools.

The students are among 33 undergraduates at the College who are from Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and US territory in which 43 percent of the population lives in poverty, and, according to the US Department of Education, a third of students drop out of high school. Only 25 percent of those who graduate earn college degrees.

Despite these challenges, many have found their way to the River Campus: 17 undergraduates were enrolled in the Kinesis Foundation, a San Juan-based nonprofit that provides Puerto Rican students with mentorship and resources needed to succeed in higher education. Rochester has more Kinesis alumni enrolled than any college on the US mainland—surpassing Notre Dame, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT.

portrait of student standing on the quad.

‘LIMITLESS DOORS’: Elizabeth Garcia ’24 is a microbiology major from Caguas, who chose Rochester largely because of its open curriculum. “I visited last fall, and I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is the school.’” (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

“Rochester offers an excellent alternative for our students,” says Mayra Prats, college counseling/scholarships director and 12th grade coordinator at Kinesis. “Most of our scholars seek a STEM degree, and research is of utmost importance. Rochester is right at the top in that area.”

Joe Latimer, Rochester’s assistant dean for enrollment diversity and outreach, is the College’s recruiter in Puerto Rico. Prats says Latimer is passionate and always accessible. “I tell parents, ‘If I had a child going to college right now, I would feel a sense of safety and security knowing Joe Latimer was around,’” she says.

She feels equally comfortable with Rochester’s financial aid office. “I could call there at any time,” she says, “and within minutes, someone will provide me with a positive answer.”

Latimer says Rochester was recruiting about four Puerto Rican students per year before 2018, but the guest semester proved a turning point.

“As a result of the students’ positive experiences here, we enrolled eight from Puerto Rico that fall, giving us the critical mass needed to attract islanders to our campus,” he says.

The outeach is a community effort. Latimer says board of trustee member Lizette Pérez-Deisboeck ’87 has become increasingly involved with recruitment efforts in Puerto Rico, personally connecting with interested students, while alumni such as Carmen Conaway-Mediavilla ’95 and Rafael Baez ’14, ’15S (MS) also interview applicants. Advancement has initiated a welcome celebration each summer to mark the arrival of students to campus from certain geographic regions, including Puerto Rico, and establishes relationships between newly enrolled students and current students and alumni.

portrait of student standing on the quad.

‘COMFORTABLE HERE SINCE THE VERY BEGINNING’: Camila Ruiz Vega ’22 is a graduate of the Kinesis Foundation, a San Juan-based nonprofit that provides students with support needed to succeed in higher education. Rochester has more Kinesis alumni enrolled than any college on the US mainland—surpassing Notre Dame, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

“But the most important selling point is the spirit of the current students on campus from Puerto Rico,” Latimer says. “They meet prospective students and families and encourage them to consider us over other colleges and universities. The energy is a natural selling point to others.”

The outreach in Puerto Rico is similar to other University efforts at home and abroad. The Rochester Promise, launched in 2007, is a tuition-free scholarship program for Rochester City School District graduates. The University began a partnership in 2014 with the Posse Foundation, providing full-tuition merit scholarships to qualified students from the Washington, D.C., area. One of those students, Jamal Holtz ’20, was the Students’ Association president in 2019–20. Rochester also has partnered with the African Leadership Academy, a selective college preparatory program in South Africa, since the academy’s inception in 2008 and been a leading destination for ALA graduates every year.

“One of the strengths of the University that drew me to this position is the extraordinary international and domestic diversity of students enrolled at Rochester,” says Robert Alexander, who joined Rochester in June as dean of admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management. “The long track record of outreach to the best and brightest students in the world continues to draw students looking for a world-class research university with the warmth and mentoring typical of smaller liberal arts colleges. It’s clear that our incredible success enrolling students from Puerto Rico demonstrate the results of a collaborative effort from trustees, faculty, current students, and admissions staff.”

Alexander says Latimer’s commitment in Puerto Rico is exceptional. “It goes above and beyond expectations,” he says. “I look forward to playing my part to continue to increase our reach.”

students sitting in large theater, socially distanced, wearing masks.

‘FELL IN LOVE WITH EVERYTHING HERE’: Brian Basu ’21 attends his political science class in the University’s Strong Auditorium. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Pamela Álvarez Rosario ’23 was a member of the Kinesis Foundation while in high school. She received SAT preparation and training in PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, and Excel, and was assigned an advisor to help with college applications and transition. “My advisor thought Rochester would be a great option for me and connected me with Joe Latimer,” the neuroscience major says. “Joe told me how to apply, I visited the campus in April 2019 and fell in love with it. The close-knit community and the open curriculum are big attractions.”

Alvarez is vice president of the Puerto Rican Students Organization and a member of the D’Lion student advising group for first-year students.

Camila Ruiz Vega ’22 is another Kinesis alumnus. A biomedical engineering major and captain of the women’s tennis team, she also works in the Office of the Dean of the College and at the Greene Center for Career Education and Connections. “Joe Latimer had a Zoom call with some of us from Kinesis, and there was just something about his personality and the way he spoke about Rochester so enthusiastically that grabbed my attention.” She came to Rochester for a three-day visit, and Basu was her tour guide. By the time she left, her mind was made up. “I wanted to major in biomedical engineering, and this was one of the best schools to do so,” Ruiz Vega says, adding. “I’ve felt comfortable here since the very beginning.”

Four other students from Puerto Rico are on varsity athletic programs: Claudia Garcia ’23 (women’s cross country and track and field), Alondra Mendez ’23 (women’s rowing), Rafael Luna ’23 (men’s tennis), and Ivana Sanchez ’24 (women’s volleyball).

Elizabeth Garcia ’24 is a microbiology major on a pre-med track. She also chose Rochester largely because of its open curriculum, which she says, “opens limitless doors for gaining knowledge, research, and opportunities.”

Garcia arrived here in August from her home in Caguas. So far, so great.

“I was searching for American colleges with microbiology majors and was amazed to read so many comments from students who talked about the ‘Rochester Effect,’” she says. “I visited last fall, and I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is the school.’”


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