Claudia Corral sent her application to Georgetown University on Oct. 25 from a small restaurant across the street from her home in Ocean Park, Puerto Rico. Her home had been without Wi-Fi since Hurricane Maria hit almost a month earlier.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with 155 mph winds Sep. 20, following Hurricane Irma, which hit just two weeks earlier, on Sep. 6.
Georgetown typically receives about 40 early applications annually from Puerto Rico. This year, Georgetown received only 23 applications, according to Ismael Herrero, the interviews chair of the Georgetown University Alumni Club of Puerto Rico. Of those 23 applicants, eight students were accepted, including Corral.
Many applicants were offline and faced difficulties in applying, and power still has not been completely restored to the residents of Puerto Rico as of February 2018. The university worried about the effect of the hurricane on Puerto Rican applicants, according to Associate Member of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions Jaime Briseño.
“We knew that there were a number of students who, because of the hurricane, did not apply, and that’s consistent with a lot of our peer institutions. Everyone saw a drop in the number of candidates,” Briseño said.
The hurricanes flooded Corral’s neighborhood; she and her friends kayaked over their neighborhood’s streets and attended school in short stints because of the school’s low diesel fuel reserves. Following Irma, Corral did not have Wi-Fi at home for 86 days. She only hoped that everything she was sending was getting to Washington, D.C.
But Corral had been intent on applying to the Hilltop since she attended an information session in 2016. Exploring College Options — a special recruitment program sponsored by Duke University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University and Georgetown — cohosts sessions like the one Corral attended every year in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
For students who cannot travel to the District to visit Georgetown themselves, the program has offered a more accessible resource to students who may not otherwise have applied.
But after the 2017 hurricanes’ devastating effects on communities in Puerto Rico, hosting another session became nearly impossible because of travelling and scheduling difficulties, prompting the consortium to drop the annual trip.
Two of the schools in the consortium, Georgetown and Harvard, did ultimately attend in early December 2017. For some applicants, it made a huge difference.
After the Storms, Stress
After attending her first information session for the Exploring College Options program in 2016, Corral knew Georgetown was the school for her.
“I’ve never gone to D.C. or seen Georgetown, but after that meeting I started doing research and I started looking into the classes and I was like, ‘Wow this is my school,’” Corral said in an interview with The Hoya. “People were like, ‘You’re crazy, how could you just choose this school?’ But I just knew it was for me.”
When it came time to apply, Hurricanes Irma and Maria had hit, leaving Corral’s home without power and, crucially for the application process, without Wi-Fi.
Corral and five other families in her neighborhood were the only ones who stayed behind when Hurricane Maria arrived. They kayaked to each other’s houses on the flooded roads and went to the restaurant across the street together where they had access to free — but unreliable — Wi-Fi.
The outages during Hurricane Maria gave Corral time to reflect on the supplemental questions asked on Georgetown’s application.
“It was just overall a really stressful situation, but it made for good writing. During Maria I had so much time to myself that I just wrote,” Corral said. “A lot of the questions that the application would ask like ‘What’s your sense of community?’ I never knew what to answer for those until Maria came. Because that’s when I really got to know who was in my community.”
Three weeks later, around the time when Corral was finally able to return to school, 84 percent of Puerto Rico remained without power and most of the island had little access to clean running water.
Although Corral was able to submit her early admission Georgetown application in October using the Wi-Fi in the restaurant across the street from her home, the mail in Puerto Rico had been running weeks behind, and she worried that she would not hear back in time about whether she got in.
Corral was not alone. Cristian Bernaschina, another early action Georgetown applicant from Puerto Rico, first visited Georgetown’s campus in eighth grade but did not seriously consider the school as a possibility until his junior year of high school. When he attended an information session for the first time in 2016, he started to picture a future for himself at Georgetown.
While Bernaschina had already sent in most of his application, he was still waiting on supplemental letters from his teachers.
Getting to San Juan
The destruction in San Juan from Hurricane Maria presented serious hurdles for the Exploring College Options universities. The group was unable to coordinate a joint information session in Puerto Rico for logistical reasons, leaving all plans for travel to San Juan and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, suspended.
Briseño, who reviews every application sent in by Puerto Rican students, as well as by students from Texas, the Caribbean and Latin America, was determined to make it to Puerto Rico despite the hurricane. He said he considers Puerto Rican students an important part of Georgetown’s campus.
“For us, we always had our message to the alumni community and the students that we didn’t want them to feel like ‘Well, that’s just too bad,’” Briseño said in an interview with The Hoya. “We were going to go back whether it was by ourselves or with one of our partners in the program.”
Harvard and Georgetown scheduled their own information session for early December, months after the originally scheduled Sept. 27 session, to give the island more time to recover from Hurricane Maria.
“We wanted to make every effort possible and let folks know that we are happy to consider extenuating circumstances, and we invite students to talk and discuss this,” Briseño said. “Often they include it in their essays, and the counselors and teachers would have included it in their letters of recommendation.”
Harvard admissions officer Abdiel Garcia wrote in an email to The Hoya that the university “found it important … to convey information about educational opportunities to students on the island, especially in times of social and economic challenge.”
“In that vein, shortly after Maria there were conversations about rescheduling the trip to the island at some foreseeable and appropriate time,” Garcia wrote. “We are grateful for our longstanding relationships with our peer institutions, Georgetown included, and we are thankful to all the folks who were involved in making this trip possible.”
Briseño emphasized that the other universities in the program are just as passionate and committed to Puerto Rican applicants as Georgetown and Harvard, and were only unable to attend because of insurmountable logistical challenges.
Georgetown’s decision to come to San Juan despite the hurricane made all the difference for students who applied to the university — apart from reaching applicants who may not have applied otherwise, during the hurricane, the info session provided a sense of normalcy, according to Corral.
“By the time the meeting was held, everything was a lot calmer. It was kind of nice; I don’t know, it felt normal, like something normal was finally happening, like we were having a college meeting, and we weren’t worried about anything else. I like that they came and visited,” said Corral.
Bernaschina believes that Georgetown’s decision to move forward with the information sessions will have a lasting impact on future applicants.
“I really feel that it helps, at least in Puerto Rico. Since a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to visit Georgetown, the info sessions are very helpful,” Bernaschina said. “They really pass on the essence of the university.”
Georgetown also made efforts to ease the application process for students in affected areas by accepting students’ supplemental essays and letters of recommendation after the early action deadline of Nov. 1.
The university decided to send acceptance letters to students by email in lieu of the traditional mailed packets after several applicants called Georgetown’s admissions office with concerns about the island’s delayed mail service.
Corral got her email from Georgetown in December.
“I was kind of scared, and I wasn’t sure I was going to get in, but when I got in, that was amazing,” said Corral, who plans to start her first semester in the College in August 2018.
On Dec. 14, Bernaschina was also accepted: He received his acceptance email into the McDonough School of Business Class of 2022 on Dec. 14. He plans to attend in the fall.
“Every time I go to the Hilltop it’s like I fall in love more and more,” Bernaschina said. “I’ve been there a few times and I can really see myself there.”
This post has been updated.