UWM recruiting team heads to Puerto Rico to offer a helping hand

Five people stand and pose for a photo in front of a UWM poster.

Packing for recruitment trips for UW-Milwaukee’s Alberto Maldonado and Mariana Sanabria usually includes brochures and branded pens. But the recruitment trip that the UWM team embarks on Monday, Dec. 11, is a little different.

First, they sent ahead to Puerto Rico 70 pounds of toilet paper, flashlights, hand sanitizer and other amenities. Additional requests for granola bars, Milwaukee-famous summer sausage and other “luxury” food items will fill staff members’ personal luggage. The recruitment materials they’re bringing include two versions of the UWM Viewbook – one in English and one in Spanish ­– plus information about public housing in Milwaukee, job resource centers in the area and local elementary schools.

“Not fully knowing what to expect, we’re trying to be as prepared as possible to meet the many needs of this group,” said Katie Miota, director of the office of undergraduate admissions at UWM.

When the four-person UWM team reaches its destination, it will also mark the first official recruiting trip that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has made to Puerto Rico. The trip comes less than eight weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through the island. The official death toll is 62, but hundreds more were injured and the storm completely disrupted the infrastructure that Puerto Rico’s 3 million-plus resident rely on for power and water.

The national higher education community, and UWM, are responding with the APP Strong Puerto Rico event, held in San Juan from Dec. 12 to 14. UW-Milwaukee will be the only Wisconsin college or university in attendance, but the UWM team will join 59 other institutions from around the United States. The event features 12-hour days, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., to instantly connect the island’s high schoolers and current university students to college enrollment officers and provide humanitarian aid to affected communities.

A woman puts a stack of brochures on a scale.
Mariana Sanabria weighs recruitment materials. UWM recruiters are packing not only brochures, but also nonperishable food and other items for those affected by Hurricane Maria. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

UWM officials will be prepared to review prospective students’ official and unofficial application records, waive admission fees and admit qualified students on site. Once students arrive at UWM, ideally for the spring 2018 semester, admissions staff can help them qualify for in-state college tuition.

“The biggest thing we’re doing with this event is taking away some of the barriers that students face as they go through the admissions process,” Miota said. “It’s about evening the playing field a little bit for students who have experienced tremendous roadblocks.”

The university’s initial response to the hurricane was to create an online form for prospective students affected by natural disasters, encouraging them to reach out to UWM with any  enrollment or admissions questions. On Oct. 27, Chancellor Mark Mone announced that the university would also provide tuition assistance to Puerto Rican students affected by Hurricane Maria.

“This trip is an important part of our mission to serve students from many different backgrounds, and it aligns with our Hispanic enrollment initiative to recruit and serve more Latino students,” said Maldonado, director of UWM’s Roberto Hernández Center. “But most important here is that we react rapidly to the needs of any student or prospective student affected by natural disaster.”

As a result, the trip isn’t built around a numerical goal like “students recruited” or “total contacts made.” Instead, the team will focus on offering a comprehensive view of what UWM and Milwaukee can offer students from Puerto Rico and on easing the admissions process for qualified individuals.

“Some students may choose to come to UWM for a just a semester or one year and then return home,” Miota said. “That’s something we can understand. We want to see Puerto Rico and the University of Puerto Rico system rebuild.”

Those who do enroll at UWM will join a handful of Puerto Rican residents already attending the university. Overall, Latino students make up 10 percent of UWM’s student population.

Half of the UWM admissions team at the San Juan event have family ties to Puerto Rico. Maldonado grew up in remote, mountainous Utuado, which has become dangerously isolated after losing bridges and other routes to the island’s population and business center in the hurricane. “They have enough food,” he said, “but power and clean water are a daily challenge.”

Sanabria’s family is in Humacao. The eye of the hurricane passed through the town on Sept. 20.

“Last night, Dec. 6, was their first day with power since the hurricane,” said Sanabria, an advisor in undergraduate admissions. “They had power for 12 hours, and now they’re without it again until Sunday. But my family is safe.”

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