Coral Murphy: Unpacking Brown in less than a year

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

On Sept. 20, 2017, the biggest hurricane to ever hit Puerto Rico destroyed part of my home, left my community with a lack of interconnectivity for weeks and forced millions to live without necessities, including food and water. As a third-year student at the University of Puerto Rico, I was uncertain whether I would be able to continue my semester in the months that followed. We had only taken two days of classes before Hurricane María hit. At that point, I thought I had the rest of my college years figured out. But in the aftermath of the disaster, with my faculty’s roof torn off and debris overlaying the Río Piedras campus, I had to face the fact that things would be difficult. Little did I know that a month after the hurricane hit, I would be accepted to Brown to continue my academic year. 

At the time, I didn’t know anything about Brown, except that it was an Ivy League school and Emma Watson was a student a few years ago. I applied to Brown’s hurricane relief program not expecting much, since I had grown used to my life post-María. A few days after applying, I received an email congratulating me for being accepted to Brown and alerting me that my flight would leave the next day. In a span of 24 hours, I left my job, said goodbye to everyone I could and packed my bags with clothing I had never used before to face the winter weather I had never experienced. 

On the plane headed to Providence, I quickly bonded with a few of the other students in the program. We were all from various parts of the island but all had been affected by the hurricane one way or another. It felt like a short plane ride thanks to the stories we shared on how our family dealt with the hurricane and its aftermath. None of us expected to be on that plane, headed to Providence, to one of the most prestigious universities in the world after going through one of the most traumatic events in Puerto Rico’s history. Although we were all excited for what awaited, some of us couldn’t help but feel guilty for leaving the island and our families in those conditions.

Upon my arrival in Providence, I immediately felt the cold New England air. I thought that was as bad as it was going to get, but now I understand that 60 degrees is a warm day. 

Everything was red. Fall was in its peak, and the leaves matched the colonial bricks of the buildings around me. As the driver dropped us off at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, members of the Brown administration were waiting for us in a semi-circle formation with big smiles on their faces. In the middle was Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the Provost, who later became “our mom” during the year. 

I quickly learned that the University’s community is extremely cordial, friendly and helpful. As soon as I arrived at my room, I was greeted by residential peer leaders, and was later taken to the Ratty, which, in that moment, looked like Hogwarts to me. 

The day after I arrived, I was oriented on all the resources Brown had, met all the deans, and emailed professors to ask to join their classes, explaining my situation. Most of the professors were understanding, and asked me to join the class as soon as possible. I will forever be grateful for the professors that decided to accept me in their classes under such abrupt circumstances. I imagine it must have been strange for students to have a new student midway through the semester, especially when the new classmate is here for unfortunate reasons.

The other Puerto Rican students joined their classes comfortably, piling on clubs and organizations that welcomed them with open arms. Most of us had never even visited an Ivy League institution. Phrases like “meal plan,” “pass fail courses” and “extensions” were foreign to us. Calling professors by their first names and being asked my pronouns were completely new practices to me. I fell in love with how open-minded and inclusive Brown seemed to be.

Though these new experiences were exciting, it was hard to process everything that was going on around me, especially when things were happening so quickly. I went from rationing my food to having a buffet three times a day; from having a mid-tier education to attending an Ivy league school; from living in a 24/7 sun-filled environment to seeing snow for the first time. Everything was within my reach, and I had no idea how to take advantage of it. 

Though Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the cultures are completely different from one another. Small things like not greeting someone with a hug and a kiss on the cheek were a shock. I also felt like I was interacting with some of the most educated and hard-working people the world has to offer. This in itself created another type of culture shock. 

But I’m thankful that I encountered this shock at Brown and not anywhere else. There were several safe spaces on campus, such as the Brown Center for Students of Color, that allowed me to bond with people who had already experienced this culture shock when they first arrived. I also had the support of the other UPR students who came with me. Some were going through the same adjustment period I was or were feeling it more intensely. The fact that we could understand each other because of our experiences before and after Hurricane María made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made everything much more bearable. 

There are things I didn’t get a chance to experience in my brief time on campus, of that I’m certain. There were many places unvisited, clubs I may never join and so many interesting people left unmet. But fully aware that my time here had a quickly approaching expiration date, I managed to squeeze my four Brunonian years into one.