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Original photo by Luis D. Alfaro Pérez

I never thought the day would come, but it finally did—I’m graduating. Six years ago, I began my college career at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Aguadilla. I knew little of what I wanted to do or if I even had what it took to achieve a successful career. So many doubts ran through my mind, but I can safely say that most of them are gone now. What remains, however, are all the memories I’ll take with me into the future. Since I’m graduating from the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, otherwise known as la IUPI, I won’t look back much on my first two years of college. 

When I arrived at la IUPI, I had everything to gain: a third year student with a thirst for knowledge who had recently transferred into the Creative Writing program. I had so much energy back then, but what can I say, I was only 20 years old. The students at the Río Piedras campus had just recently finished a two-month long strike opposing budget cuts and the then-possibility of losing the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation. Tensions were high, so at that point, everyone just wanted to go back to studying and have at least one ‘‘normal’’ semester, but little did they know what awaited them. Little did I know, too. 

On September 16th, 2017, Hurricane Maria laid its path of destruction on the Island. The electrical infrastructure was ruined, thousands of homes were destroyed, and 2,975 people died, according to the Puerto Rican government, although 4,645 is considered the popular death toll among the people. This destruction meant that college would be a no-no for a few months, which really derailed my mental health. I found shelter in compulsively reading fiction to dissociate from the hurricane’s aftermath. Although stepping foot on campus would be difficult, it was what I most craved at the time. 

We returned in late October to a devastated campus: bald palm trees, flooded buildings, hanging toddler seats and leaking libraries. No longer was there magic in the university’s halls. Instead, there was just uncertainty. By December 1st, 1,561 students withdrew from the UPR, while many others had to continue their education off the Island. For those of us who were privileged enough to stay, things were still rough. With frequent electrical outages, a lack of power in most households and an overall draining day-to-day routine, there just wasn’t enough to keep us hopeful among the dread. 

I carpooled every day to college for the first few months while staying with family friends and went through a scary period of financial insecurity. For the first time in my college career, I had to be extremely mindful of my money, given that half of it was spent on food and transportation. I slept on a couch for those first months, and had to read 50-page long essays under a flashlight, all while being mindful of saving enough energy for the next day. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to do it. I barely have any pictures from back then. But as many therapists say, time heals all wounds. Slowly, but surely, I was able to get back on my feet. 

As January came around, I was able to get my car up and running again and I moved in with my aunt. The railroads became my best friends; every day, I arrived a tad late to college on that expensive yet at the time convenient train system. The first semester came and went, and suddenly, I found myself moving into a college dorm: Torre Norte. What I didn’t know back then was that I moved in the very last semester that the building would be open. Students who lived in the dorm began protesting as the administration claimed that one of the only two student dorms would be closing down to fix damages caused by the hurricane in 2017. 

I was one of those students. Although I had just recently arrived, I felt connected with a cause that went beyond me. It was about accessibility, affordable housing, and the right to study regardless of your economic background. No matter how noble a cause this might have been, that was when I learned about how movements are silenced and suppressed. 

That same year, I remember attending the yearly May Day protest and witnessed firsthand how police officers broke protocol and violently implemented tactics that harmed protestors. I remember hearing those tear gas alarms go off, seeing officers flanking skyscrapers, and thousands of strangers chanting around me. This was before la Milla de Oro was heavily guarded. Every year since then, due to some relatively minor damages that some of the buildings sustained, that strip is flooded with cops that block any and all protestors from marching down that street. But back then, we marched until the tear gas canisters were launched.

Red, pink, blue, purple. A rainbow display of smokescreens that stretched above quickly ended the protest. I remember frantically trying to escape with my eyes shut, hundreds of tears quickly pouring down, and feeling my throat seal off. Suffocating. A kind stranger doused my eyes with a rose-tinted water bottle that helped me keep running. Others weren’t as lucky and remained there, near the police force, agonized on the asphalt. Afterward, some officers started barging into apartments near the university in an attempt to identify and arrest protest leaders. These horrific displays of power depleted the hope I had left in saving my student dorm. 

Although not without a fight, on June 15th, 2018, Torre Norte closed down, leaving many students without a home. Some had to drop out of college, and others saw their college experience permanently affected. That summer didn’t feel very refreshing, if I’m honest. Given that classes ended in early to late June and started in August, it was the second shortest break I’ve had between semesters (the first one was just two weeks, from mid-February to March.) Even though the electricity grid was up and running in most of the country, some parts wouldn’t receive power for at least an entire year after the storm originally passed. The way that the crisis was handled by Ricardo Rosselló, who was governor at the time, led to a feeling of deeply-rooted resentment. 

[bf_image id="qfn2j6-1g7b3c-earok9"] Although the student body hadn’t organized another strike, they became an active force in scrutinizing the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) government, especially for austerity measures that were being implemented by the Fiscal Governing Board (JSF, in Spanish) over the UPR. Amongst the most controversial decisions still rank the elimination of tuition exemptions (grants for athletes, musicians, student council members, and more), drastic increases in tuition, possible closure of campuses and a budget that would be reduced by 50% over the span of four years. Needless to say, the students were furious. I, on the other hand, was as disappointed as ever with how public officials were handling our university’s fate, but I was still making the most of what I could at the time. 

Near the end of May 2019, I became a production assistant for a documentary for almost two months. It was one of the few times where I got to experience a balance between work and free time, no classes involved. My boss became like a distant family figure―one you keep in a corner of your heart and remember fondly with many stories. I learned, then, that I was ready to explore things outside my comfort zone. I also got to meet an ex-political prisoner and activist before he died: Rafael Cancel Miranda, one of the four Puerto Ricans who stormed the US Congress in 1954 demanding independence for the Island. I still have a few pictures around. Maybe I’ll post them some day. 

My life aside, tensions were still highly strung. When the Center of Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) leaked 889 pages worth of a Telegram chat that exposed ex-governor Rosselló and his cronies’ sexism, corruption, mudslinging, and forgery of social media accounts to falsely boost his public image in the media, all hell broke loose. Over the span of almost three weeks, thousands demanded that the governor resign and be tried for the potentially illegal activity that went down in the now infamous chat. On July 24th, 2019, the governor announced his resignation, and the masses cheered, but the relief was only temporary. In early August, the then Secretary of Justice, Wanda Vázquez Garced, would end up as Puerto Rico’s first constitutional governor and second female head of state. 

Vázquez Garced would later disappoint UPR students by refusing to question the JSF-mandated budget cuts. The entirety of her term would eventually be riddled with controversy and scandals, but more on that later. That brief, fleeting yet chaotic semester would be, ironically enough, our last glimpse of a ‘‘normal’’ semester. 

In January of 2020, Puerto Rico was seized by dozens of earthquakes that destroyed infrastructure in the south and, once again, tore apart our weak electrical system. The quakes brought back memories of Maria, and many began sleeping outdoors in fear of their homes collapsing in on them. Dozens of schools were permanently closed after their infrastructures were deemed dangerous, even if they were actually in stronger conditions than some of the ones that remained open. As citizens lived in fear, without receiving proper aid from the government, yet another reason to rage surfaced: the discovery of warehouses full of expired emergency supplies that dated back to Hurricane Maria’s aftermath. 

Dozens flooded the warehouses, taking what worked and ignoring what was unusable. Above all, there was rage. So much, that protests started almost immediately at Old San Juan. Although this time around, not enough momentum was built to achieve that the governor resigned, the resentment burned on, right up until the most unexpected obstacle arrived, and you already know what I’m talking about—the pandemic. 

Everything stopped. Online classes became the new normal. Some professors stopped giving classes altogether, while others desperately tried to adapt their courses to this new reality. Many students returned home. Yet another student dorm was closed down by the end of the semester. Countless students lost their jobs and family members. The feelings of uncertainty flooded our new virtual homes. And yet, we were forced to survive, practically. It was during this time that I began to compulsively write. I learned to write faster than ever, to scrutinize my words with much more force. I demanded more from myself than ever before, until I was left feeling burned out now after three semesters of online learning I honestly didn’t sign up for. 

No amount of overworking can mask the sorrows that I’ve harbored. This has been a long, up-hill fight. I’m proud of everything that me and my colleagues survived and the legacy that we shall carry onto the future, but it’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye. I mourn all the good times that we missed out on due to the global health crisis and how our government handled several natural disasters. I suffer when I think back on all those who have fought for a more accessible education system only to see their dreams be shattered by the knives of austerity. 

I say goodbye to the dozens of kind strangers in the College of Humanities. To the pastor who fed all of us ResiCampus residents at El Mesón de Amor. To the ever-flooded student center. To my stern, motherly and loving choir professor. To every professor who scrutinized my writing in the name of art. To those nights spent at El Vidy’s. To the freezing classrooms in the College of General Studies. To the pool I never visited enough at the Sports Complex. To the Law School library I never visited. To the School of Communications professors who taught me to love cinema and be hypercritical. To the journalist friends who were my teachers and colleagues at once. To my classmates who never stopped believing in me and gave me their shoulders to rest on—especially during the last three online semesters. To all the clarinet players I had the pleasure to meet, and my clarinet instructor, who was as kind as they come. To every single one of my roommates who lifted my spirits and created a safe space for me to grow and feel appreciated. To my best friends, who held my hand along the way and were my pillow to cry on almost any weekend. To the nights spent on studying or at local drag shows. To every single experience I forgot to mention or intentionally omitted.

And to the girls at Her Campus at UPR, I say goodbye, but with a fondness in the bottom of my heart knowing that this was one of the first platforms where I got to publish my words. Knowing that I belonged to a community of strong, diverse, inclusive, creative and wholesome individuals. Where I learned the power of teamwork and set the bases for my future pursuits. I never knew what I had coming for myself when I entered this chapter back in April of 2018, but I now know that it was one of the best decisions I ever made. With warmth and pain, I remain grateful. 

Goodbye, IUPI. Sincerely, a proud ex-Gallito.

Luis is a 24-year-old writer, editor and journalist recently graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. He majored in Creative Writing and Communications and has bylines published under Her Campus, Pulso Estudiantil and El Nuevo Día. During his final year of college, Luis worked as Senior Editor for Her Campus at UPR, Editor in Chief of Digital News at Pulso Estudiantil and interned at El Nuevo Día. He seeks to portray the stories of societies, subcultures and identities that have remained in the dark. Check all of his stories out at Muckrack! https://muckrack.com/luis-alfaro-perez
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