It’s difficult for Christopher Perez Hernandez to express himself in English, but with the help of his cousin and spell check, the Puerto Rican evacuee who fled the island after Hurricane Maria recently wrote a heart-wrenching, detailed thank you to the Polk State College Foundation for making it possible for him to pursue his higher education.
He moved from Toa Alta to Polk County in early November, and the last six months “were crucial for me and my decision to continue fighting (for my education) or not, because it is not easy to be in a country (where you) do not know anything nor speak your native language,” Hernandez wrote.
He tirelessly searched for a job. He mulled over whether to take out student loans. And with his car in Puerto Rico, he wondered how he would get to school even if he found a way to pay for it.
“I came here with nothing, but wanted to start studying as soon as I got here.”
“I came here with nothing, but wanted to start studying as soon as I got here,” Hernandez told Polk State News.
He moved in with his cousin, his cousin’s wife, and their five children, who also fled Puerto Rico after the hurricane. Hernandez considers his cousin his brother because he was raised by his aunt and uncle since he was 3 years old, when his parents died in a family tragedy.
“They always watched over me and supported me in everything to be able to go forward and have a promising future,” he said of his aunt and uncle, who he calls mom and dad. “They taught me that education is important, I went to the best schools, and they instilled great values in me.”
He graduated from high school with honors and enrolled at Atlantic University College in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. There, Hernandez studied digital graphic design and photography, and was only one year away from completing a bachelor’s degree when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017.
“My college no longer had a roof and the area still doesn’t have electricity,” Hernandez told Polk State News. “There was no way I was going to be able to finish my (higher education) in Puerto Rico.”
He planned to enroll at Polk State in January, after learning about the College from a family friend, but the spring semester came and went while Hernandez struggled to find a job and transportation.
His mother sold a property in Puerto Rico to pay for Hernandez’s car to be shipped over. She also offered to help Hernandez secure a loan to pay for his classes, but wanted him to have a job first so that he could make payments on the loan.
The first day of summer classes neared, and Hernandez still didn’t have a job.
“I was upset and crying in the (Registrar’s) Office because I was going to have to (withdraw) from the summer classes I had signed up for, putting me more and more behind,” Hernandez said. “That’s when someone came out of nowhere and said the Polk State College Foundation could help me.”
That someone was Kathy Bucklew, Director of Student Enrollment Services and Registrar. She connected Hernandez to the Foundation, which offered to pay for Hernandez’s semester of classes, as well as $400 for textbooks and supplies. The Foundation awards approximately $1.5 million in scholarships each year.
“I could not believe it. My heart could not stand such happiness – a light at the end of the tunnel,” Hernandez wrote. “Thank you… to the Polk State College Foundation for believing in me and allowing me to study without any worries. I promise you that my grades will be good and my enthusiasm will always be positive.”
“I could not believe it. My heart could not stand such happiness – a light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you… to the Polk State College Foundation for believing in me and allowing me to study without any worries. I promise you that my grades will be good and my enthusiasm will always be positive.”
Polk State has assisted many students who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Following the storm, Governor Rick Scott asked Florida state colleges and universities to provide support to these students, which Polk State quickly offered to do. President Angela Garcia Falconetti appointed Bucklew as their point of contact. She works with them closely and confidentially to identify financial assistance, and to help them with registration and documentation needs.
Hernandez is currently focused on learning English and completing general education courses. He still plans to pursue graphic design.
And on May 14, only days into the summer semester, Hernandez landed a job at McDonald’s.
“We fight against all odds to establish ourselves as a family and to fight for an uncertain future,” Hernandez wrote in his letter to the Foundation, “but in the distance, we (know it will) be promising.”