CSUSB welcomes Puerto Rican cybersecurity students whose campus was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria
Office of Strategic Communication
Hurricane Maria proved to be a continuing disaster for Puerto Rico, destroying or severely damaging homes, businesses and infrastructure, leaving island residents without the basic essentials such as food, water, shelter, electricity and phone service.
Four weeks after the hurricane’s rampage, the island is slowly returning to normal with water and food being more available, though a majority of the island’s residents are still lacking electricity. Government officials expect it will be until December until electricity is fully restored.
But for Naileen, Carlos, Alexander and Jadiel, all cybersecurity majors at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (PUPR), the natural disaster created another calamity to an already dire situation — the hurricane severely damaged the PUPR campus, leaving the four graduate students with the possibility of being unable to complete their studies and jeopardizing their scholarships through the CyberCorps: Scholarships for Service program.
“We didn’t know when the university would be able to reopen,” said Alexander, whose home in Cupey sustained damages that included the destruction of part of his garage when a sheet of metal garage roofing flew off and kept hitting his family’s cars, which were also moving back and forth from the storm.
The four graduate students, identified only by their first names because, as SFS scholarship recipients, they are required to fulfill a one-for-one year commitment with a federal agency that may involve working for the federal government, said while they were dealing with the disaster’s aftereffects, they were still concerned about their cyber studies.
Carlos, who was in Atlanta for a conference when Maria struck, said it was four days before he was able to communicate with his family or friends in Quebradillas. On his return he saw that his neighborhood, once filled with trees, now looked like a desert.
“It was confusing. I lost all my big trees,” Carlos said. The storm “struck a shed near his house and I lost all my clothes, papers, books, tools.”
But he was also concerned about his school and his scholarship. He said he had to travel to the center of the island to get phone reception to talk to other family members, friends and fellow students.
Carlos was able to connect with his cyber instructor, Professor Alfredo Cruz, who was trying to contact his students to make sure they were okay. Knowing how dire the situation was for his students, Cruz had also been contacting his cybersecurity counterparts around the United States to see if they could help.
Naileen said the professor had a solution to their problem more than 3,300 miles away. Cal State San Bernardino said it would accept them as students for the fall.
“When I received the call from Professor Cruz, he said it would be possible to come to Cal State San Bernardino,” Naileen said. “I accepted.”
Like her classmates, Naileen and her family in Humacao had no electricity or water in the storm’s aftermath. She said they were forced to stay with various relatives. She talked about the long lines of people waiting to buy gasoline.
“In the beginning there was no gas. The waiting at the gas stations were 6-10 hours long and then they would announce there was no gas and you would have to come back tomorrow,” said Naileen, who added that the people had to leave the stations because of the emergency imposed curfew of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The four students, who all plan to work in cybersecurity for either the government or private industry, already knew about CSUSB through the university’s designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense/Information Assurance. CSUSB also offered the program on specialty areas in cyber investigations and network security administration, which is what the students were studying at the PUPR.
Tony Coulson, a CSUSB professor of Information and Decision Sciences and director of the university’s Cyber Security Center, had been contacted by Cruz.
“Alfredo asked if CSUSB could help. He said, ‘The situation in PR is not good. We do not have electricity, water is scarce as is food, bottles of water, among other essential things,’” Coulson said.
He immediately reached out across the CSUSB campus for help and in no time, a group consisting of administrators, deans and faculty working with the cybersecurity staff put together a plan to provide transportation, housing, a meal plan, and funding from the center’s National Security Foundation grant, which was approved, with classes arranged through the information and decision sciences department.
“I’ve never seen this happen so quickly,” Coulson said. “It’s a testament to the people here at Cal State San Bernardino.”
The four students were enrolled at the university for the fall quarter, had campus housing, with their tuition, books and fees covered by their CyberCorps: Scholarships for Service scholarships, which had been from PUPR with approval by the National Science Foundation, Coulson said. Arrangements were also made to get the students translators to help them in class.
By the end of the first week of October, the four had been flown to Los Angeles International Airport. Three came from San Juan and one came via Cancun, Mexico. Coulson said making the travel arrangements had been difficult as flights from the island were either continually canceled or postponed.
For the four students, leaving their families behind was difficult.
Jadiel said the storm’s aftereffects left both of his parents in Bayamon without jobs and he, like his classmates, had been unable to go to class.
“I figured I would be able to help them more from here in going to school,” Jadiel said.
For Alexander, the decision to come to San Bernardino was a difficult one. His elderly grandparents had already been forced to leave the island to stay with family in Florida.
“There was no power or water and it was really tough on my grandparents. My grandmother has Parkinson’s disease and my grandfather has Alzheimer’s,” Alexander said. “They had lived in Puerto Rico all their lives. I don’t know if they will be able to come back.”
But his parents were very supportive in his making the trip to San Bernardino. “My parents really wanted me to come here. They encouraged me to come,” Alexander said.
Coulson said the four are adapting well. They immediately began to tackle their studies to catch up with their fellow CSUSB students. Though the CSUSB programs are different and even the tools they use are different, the four are adjusting well, he added.
“These students are amazing. They know this is not a vacation and they are taking their studies very seriously,” Coulson said. “They are blending in amazingly with the other students.”
“We know we’re behind, but we can catch up,” Naileen said. “We pretty much know there are no free weekends.”
The four have been impressed with the university, especially the students, faculty and staff.
“The people here are really nice. They are really welcoming,” Jadiel said.
But they also miss and worry about their families in Puerto Rico.
“I love them and miss them and hope things will be better for them soon,” Naileen said.
Coulson said the department is working on getting an antenna on campus big enough to be able to use HAM radios to communicate with the four students’ families, friends and classmates who were unable to make the trip.