For many college students, spring break can mean relaxing on a beach. But for a group of School of Communication and Media students, professors and staff, a weeklong March break trip to Puerto Rico was a working vacation – and a unique collaborative journalism project covering the effects of Hurricane Maria.
The September storm was the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rican recorded history, with damage to the island estimated as much as $95 billion. Six months later, seven students, along with professors Thomas Franklin, Steve McCarthy and David Sanders, and staff Marie Sparks and Krystal Acosta quickly discovered that recovery is far from complete, with signs of devastation visible across the island six months after the storm.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our students to have a cultural experience as well as a journalistic experience in a place where a big, prolonged news event was occurring,” says Franklin. “On a scale of one to 10, this trip was a 20, especially in terms of the students’ development and growth in the short time we were there.”
For Latino and Latina students with personal ties to the island and the region, the trip was especially significant. “I’m Puerto Rican,” says Mariano Arocho, a senior Communications and Media Arts major. “My grandparents live on the island and were greatly affected when Maria hit.”
Seeing the trip as an opportunity to enhance his journalism and video production skills, Arocho recorded his grandmother’s story. “My grandparents own a nursing home on the island, which flooded during Maria. They’re now planning to sell the business,” he says. “My grandmother can no longer do what she loves to do. It breaks her heart, but now’s the time for her to relax and retire.”
Senior Television and Digital Media major Natalie De La Rosa identified with the islanders’ plight. “Being an islander myself from the Dominican Republic, I felt I could help people by telling stories we don’t usually get to hear in the states,” she says. Her video features business owners who shared how they coped with hardships before, during and after the storm.
While shocked by the island’s devastation, De La Rosa was impressed by peoples’ positive spirit. “Everyone greeted us with a smile and love in their eyes,” she recalls. “Many said they were just happy that somebody was willing to listen to them.”
For senior journalism major Madison Glassman, the trip provided invaluable real-world experience. “I learned that journalism is hard work,” she says. “I realized you truly have to love storytelling for this job – and I can honestly say I do.”
Her video focused on Cypress Missions, a group of fellow New Jerseyans from Brielle that was helping to repair a damaged church and rectory in Vega Baja. “I met the group the day I filmed my story, but by the end of the day, I felt like we were family.” Among the volunteers were Montclair State alumni Medaly Rodriguez Jones and Jay Jones, who had met when students at the University.
A Unique Cultural Exchange
According to Franklin, the team benefited from a unique cultural and learning experience gained by collaborating with University of Puerto Rico students and faculty.
“The Puerto Rican students were phenomenal,” says De La Rosa. “They were such a great help to the team – from guiding us around the island to literally being involved in some of our pieces.”
Arocho recalls that while the Puerto Ricans were unwilling to let a hurricane completely disrupt their lives, they still need help to recover. “There are people still without power and still without roofs over their heads. It’s important to understand this and do what we can to help.” By capturing and sharing stories of Puerto Rican resilience, recovery and hope, the Montclair State team hopes to further understanding of the lasting impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.
You can see more of Thomas Franklin’s images from the spring break trip to Puerto Rico at: https://animoto.com/play/1ESGFktrjh2BnkuEwwZApA
On Wednesday, April 25, the SCM Colloquium Series presents: Fuerza Puerto Rico: Stories of resilience and recovery told by SCM students six months after Hurricane Maria. Learn more at: https://www.montclair.edu/calendar/view-event.php?id=49304