University News

Making a Difference: WIU in Puerto Rico

March 28, 2018

Share |
Printer friendly version

From the Spring 2018 issue of Western: The Magazine for Alumni of Western Illinois University


By Jodi Pospeschil

After Puerto Rico was devastated by hurricanes in Fall 2017, the higher education opportunities previously forged on the island by Western Illinois University faculty have evolved to include the chance to help with and learn from storm recovery efforts.

WIU Professors Heather McIlvaine-Newsad and Gloria Delany-Barmann traveled to Puerto Rico in late October as part of the U.S. Department of Education Title VI Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language (UISFL) program. The nearly $425,000 grant allows WIU to offer the project, "Communities as Agents: Language and Area Studies for a Sustainable Future," funding three years of international travel opportunities for WIU and Spoon River College (SRC) students and faculty.

The grant provides for the development of long- and short-term study abroad opportunities for students, as well as scholarships for taking part in the resulting courses. There is also funding for eight faculty members from WIU and SRC to "internationalize" their curriculum through opportunities ranging from travel to resource access.

One of the main objectives of the project is to expand and enhance study abroad opportunities in Latin America, where students can immerse themselves in the Spanish language and Latin culture. Relationships established through the grant program are already in place in Puerto Rico and Ecuador.

McIlvaine-Newsad, an anthropology professor, and Delany-Barmann, an educational studies professor, initially planned their Fall 2017 trip to Ponce and San Juan to check on internship and study sites in Puerto Rico's higher education system and meet with existing contacts there. After the storm hit, the visit took on a new meaning.

"We also wanted to check on our colleagues to make sure they were okay after the storm," said Delany-Barmann. "We wanted to see the damage and retool some of the facets of the grant."

The pair arrived in Puerto Rico on the first day classes resumed at higher education institutions. Many schools were trying to regroup after thousands of people, including many college students, fled the island after the storms.

New Opportunities

The academic planning trip was initially scheduled to depart in the middle of the hurricanes, and as such, was pushed back. Because of the severity of the damage, the opportunities for study in the region have been expanded.

Prior to the storm, the study abroad opportunities available through the grant mainly encompassed nursing, public health, business, biology, anthropology and education. Because of the storm damage, the opportunities for study have grown to include other WIU academic programs, such as emergency management, community development and political science.

In addition to the expanded research areas, McIlvaine-Newsad and Delany-Barmann said the storm damage has presented Puerto Rican residents, and those seeking to study ways to improve the region, an opportunity to expand their knowledge and lessen the dependence of residents on an aging infrastructure system as the country recovers.

"In many ways it's a tragedy, but it's also an opportunity—there are infinite possibilities for people to think creatively," said McIlvaine-Newsad. "We have colleagues and their families who had solar homes, who are already no longer dependent on the aging, underdeveloped electrical grid in the country. Now they are being leaders by showing how to be prepared and to think differently."

Delany-Barmann said the storm has also presented the chance for the country to look at more creative options as it recovers from the storm.

"The way they produce and market food; generate energy with solar or wind—their electrical grid was wiped out so people are looking for alternatives," she said.

Alumni Help

One WIU alumna and one current student already living in Ponce, have helped develop the grant-funded programming available to WIU students in Puerto Rico, including finding research opportunities for students, and finding places to live while they study.

Megan Luczak, a 2011 biology graduate, is a chef in Ponce and Sara Vasquez, an anthropology major, is a farmer and community organizer.

"They are our point people on the ground," said Delany-Barmann. "They find home stays, guide students in the culture and history classes and coordinate with other professors. They are great cultural brokers."

First-Hand Experience

While McIlvaine-Newsad and Delany-Barmann were in Ponce and San Juan, they watched as the country struggled to bounce back from the devastation caused by the hurricanes. Night curfews, large, smelly generators, flood lights, food and water rationing and shuttered businesses were common as business owners protested what, at that time, was 43 days without electricity.

"People were waiting six or seven hours for cash at the ATM, then waiting in line at stores that had lists posted of what items they had in stock," said Delany-Barmann. "People weren't allowed in the stores because there was no electricity and it was dark. Residents had to pay in cash for everything."

Making a Difference

In preparation for their trip, McIlvaine-Newsad and Delany-Barmann began collecting donations from friends, family and the community to take with them to help with the recovery efforts. One of those donations came from Macomb Mayor Mike Inman, donating $100 on behalf of the city of Macomb and writing a letter to Ponce's mayor extending condolences and support.

"Heather and Gloria reached out to me and this is a gesture we thought was important, especially since they have a relationship there and were going on behalf of the University," said Inman. "We were supporting some folks from Western, who let those in Puerto Rico know that folks in Macomb were concerned about them."

Through the money raised by their donation efforts and a GoFundMe page, McIlvaine-Newsad and Delany-Barmann were able to collect $3,285 to purchase several water purification units, as well as a generator, which was donated to a school in Orocovis.

In the coming months, McIlvaine-Newsad and Delany-Barmann will lead another study group to Puerto Rico for two weeks. The trip will include historic walking tours, visits to see how the rainforest is regenerating and individual study in students' specific areas of interest.

For more information about the project, visit or contact Delany-Barmann at or McIlvaine-Newsad at

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Communications & Marketing