Puerto Rican vacations to high school classes: My educational impetus

Sept. 21, 2021, 7:06 p.m.

“Ponte a estudiar!” 

Looking back on the past three years, now as a rising senior in a highly competitive school, rare were the weeks when the workload didn’t cost me my sleep (along with my sanity, as I’d joke to my friends during particularly trying times). Yet my Puerto Rican mom was always hovering behind me, stressing the importance of education, repeating her signature phrase and sending me off to study.

Education always seemed to be the answer in the eyes of my mamá. When poet Luis Lloréns Torres left the barrio of Collores, it was on a cream-colored pony along a narrow, flowered path — as depicted in his poem “Cuando salí de Collores.”

When my mother left that same community in the rainforest-blanketed mountains, it was through an academic scholarship and with aspirations of entering the workforce as a chemist. Years later, education drove her decision to move our family from the island to Arlington, Va., where she encouraged my sister and me to try out every extracurricular we could.

Education was her greatest hope for us. After all, a college education was the ticket to self-assurance, respectability and financial freedom. Her infectious enthusiasm left a mark on me from a young age, and I began to idealize my college years.

As a middle schooler, I obsessed over the various options I could pursue in high school. Should I join a debate club or compete in math competitions? What would show the most dedication and leadership, like users on online forums advised? Knowing little of what I was passionate about, my answers never seemed to cater to who I was as a person.

In eighth grade, I proudly showed my friends a piece of graphing paper neatly divided into rows and columns, with “High School Master Plan” written along the top and courses planned out for the next four years. I even had tentative plans for summers, scheduled down to the day with camps I hoped to attend.

The summer before high school, our family stayed in Puerto Rico for the entire break — just like we did almost every year. Hurricanes would threaten our afternoon plans, blackouts would force us to scavenge in closets for old candles and my tíos would comment on the dismal state of the local economy and politics — all while I sat at the kitchen counter eating mangoes.

Despite challenges, these moments were interspersed with the delight of vacation, family, good food and community. Besides, I was a teenage kid who lived on the mainland and visited only as often as the school calendar allowed. What did I know about the complexities of Puerto Rican society? What could I do about any of it?

That June, I participated in a local high school engineering program and worked with several students from Ana G. Méndez University to regulate a microgrid they had built on campus. They explained that microgrid technology — which involves small energy grids that can operate autonomously — is crucial for hurricane-prone, infrastructure-weak Puerto Rico. 

“There are only a couple of power lines linking energy users across the island to the power generation areas, engineering professor Ian Gutierrez said as he drew a diagram of the island on a classroom whiteboard. “One tree falls, and the entire line is out.” He rubbed a mark out with his thumb. “No power.”

Microgrids, which could generate power for a small region even during natural disasters, had already been seized upon by many in Puerto Rico. They were being built in schools and hospitals in attempts to prevent another catastrophic blackout like the one Hurricane Maria caused in 2017. Like any innovation, microgrids had their drawbacks: their complexity, for example, can make them difficult to implement. Yet I felt invigorated after being clued into this movement.

All my life I’d borne witness to issues plaguing Puerto Rico from afar, unsure of what I could possibly do about it. Yet the answer was in front of me all along, repeated over and over again by my mother.

It didn’t have to be microgrids. It didn’t even have to be science. Education was how I could not only gain confidence, respect and money, but also support the island and help it move forward even in times when my tíos lament.

Through my college education, I hope to join the ranks of dedicated students, learn all that I can and one day not too far off, take another flight to the Caribbean — to contribute to the welfare of the island that has given me so much. Until then, I’ll do as my mom says, and keep studying.

Melissa Tariq Rodriguez is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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