ORLANDO, Fla. - In a small office in the Barbara Ying Center at the University of Central Florida is a monitor analyzing the region's increasing Puerto Rican population. Researchers absorb the data, predicting the community's growing population trend, as the red, white and blue flag of the country hangs with pride and heritage next to it.
"You still hold on to your island," Fernando Rivera said.
Rivera is a sociologist at UCF and the founding director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub. The research project just celebrated its first anniversary.
"I think the neat thing about this is that it did answer a sort of a community need," Rivera said about the Hub's inception.
He had been pushing for an establishment like the Hub for years. Joining the faculty in 2005, he noticed a trend in the growing Puerto Rican population as early as 2010, suggesting that UCF be part of it.
When Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, his idea for a hub became part of a larger conversation.
Rivera helped advise the university's response to the tragedy the storm caused. However, the university's actions didn't end with a statement or a list of resources.
During the spring semester following the storm, 1,135 students from Puerto Rico applied to attend the university, according to admission records. UCF accepted 405, and 199 formally enrolled.
Data showed more students were working to relocate to Central Florida, a microcosm of the Puerto Rico population already flocking toward the region hoping to seek refuge after the storm.
Recent data estimates that about 3,050 people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. The category five storm was the third costliest Atlantic hurricane, causing about $91.6 billion in damage, according to FEMA, affecting 3.4 million of the island's residents.
Florida officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans turned to Florida to rebuild their lives. Rivera says thousands of them sought to establish themselves in Central Florida, specifically in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, according to data collected by UCF.
"If anything good came out of Hurricane Maria, it was this awareness by the local governmental officials, administration officials, everybody, that we indeed have a large Puerto Rican population," he said.
A population that's growing.
With a new sector of the community to serve, Rivera was able to start formulating the Hub in the Summer of 2018. The Hub was officially inaugurated September that year, a year after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
He says over the past year, the Hub has become more than just research.
"It's that idea that our local university, the second-largest university in the United States, is dedicating some time, some space, some effort, to Puerto Rico. That speaks volumes to the community," he said.
The community's new awareness birthed the second goal of the hub: outreach.
Rivera says the Hub dives deep into research about Puerto Ricans, specifically disaster response and recovery on the island, population trends and health. As a sociologist, he hopes to apply what he and his team learn to create resources for a growing sector of Central Florida.
He says he's already seen research at the Hub impact the population.
A year after Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican Research Hub hosted a series of panels to see what the newfound residents of Central Florida needed. The root of many of their issues was a language barrier, the inability to speak English.
Rivera said the university was able to coordinate with its English Language Institute and the city of Orlando to host English language classes in more prominent parts of the community. He said by hosting classes at a low-cost rate and in areas that are more accessible, their outreach stretched further than UCF.
"So just putting people who have resources in the same room and enabling that conversation, that outreach made such a difference," he said. "That's something we need to do more of. It was just as simple as that."
Rivera said as the Hub continues to grow, he hopes outreach can be part of his vision for sustainability. He believes UCF's status as a Hispanic Serving Institute will assist with the hub's permanency.
The university was listed as an eligible HSI earlier this year. UCF is one of 11 schools in the state that is considered an HSI, and one of the only major universities to earn the title following the guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools must comply with myriad requirements to earn HSI status, including having 25% or more of their student population identify as Hispanic. Rivera said UCF was always very close, but after Hurricane Maria the number was easily achieved -- a feat other major schools must dedicate years of recruitment efforts to achieve.
"I think the university is starting to realize how lucky we are," he said. "This is a result of the demographic changes we're experiencing. I think in a sense, this is a microcosm of what the country is going to look like in 20 or years or so."
It all accumulates to recognizing the impact the Puerto Rican community has had on the university and UCF overall, he said. He believes the research done at the Hub has made it easier to track these impacts.
"In the symbolic way, sort of affirming the community here."
As people learn about Hispanic history and the influence Puerto Ricans have had in Central Florida for Hispanic Heritage Month, he hopes people can recognize the reality of everyday life for people in this sector of the population.
"Don't let it be the flavor of the month. It's good to have the time to celebrate that but I think we need to start thinking," he said.
"Everybody is dealing with affordable housing, wages, safety, transportation, schools. Those are things that if we can improve in one sector of the community we can probably improve it in the whole community."
He firmly believes that as the refugees of Hurricane Maria transition from survival to creating a new lifestyle, city and state leaders are going to need to address their long-term needs.
"At the end of the day, if we take care of the needs of the Puerto Rican community, we take care of the needs of the whole community," Rivera said.
He said the Puerto Rican Research Hub has proven it can help.
"I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this was going to have the impact that this had had so far," he said. "We can learn from each other, and I think that's the space we can continue to celebrate our differences for the common good."
People can help support Rivera and UCF's Puerto Rican Research Hub by making a donation using this link.
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