Hurricane Maria upended her life; now she’s back on track as a UMass grad

Tamika Shawnell Ortiz Acosta will graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday and reach a milestone that felt unattainable six years ago.

Ortiz Acosta arrived in Western Massachusetts from Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria destroyed her family’s home. She studied at the University of Puerto Rico before the storm made landfall and altered her life forever.

“It changed everything for us,” Ortiz Acosta said in an interview on Wednesday. She planned to follow in her mother’s footsteps and join the medical field. She wanted to become a neurologist, in part because her grandmother suddenly became a paraplegic on Christmas Day in 2016 and doctors had no explanation for the mysterious paralysis.

On Friday, during the UMass commencement ceremony at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, Ortiz Acosta will instead graduate with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a minor in political science in large part, she said, because of what she saw and experienced when she moved to the mainland United States.

She barely spoke English when she first moved to Springfield and jobs were hard to come by. Her mother did not speak English and she could no longer continue working as a nurse because of the language barrier. Stable housing became an immediate challenge.

The early struggles of living in Western Massachusetts have shaped Ortiz Acosta’s ambitions as she plans for her future after she receives her diploma.

For the past six months, Ortiz Acosta has worked as a legal clinic coordinator for the Hampden County Bar Association, which has an office at the Roderick J. Ireland Courthouse at 50 State St. in Springfield.

Many of the clients she sees every day struggle with discrimination issues at work or are in the throes of an eviction process.

“At some point, I was one of those people looking for help and not able to communicate or express what I wanted,” Ortiz Acosta said. “When someone walks into the office, I can see myself in them and I try to help as much as I can.”

Life after Maria

Ortiz Acosta considered her family lucky in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They lived without power and running water for two months, but she knew of many families that did not have power for up to a year.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico with winds topping 150 mph on Sept. 20, 2017. The island, a U.S. territory with 3.2 million people, suffered greatly in the aftermath of the storm after thousands of homes, roads and buildings were destroyed. And the effects continue to be felt today.

Two years later, in September 2022, the government had only completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities reported that not a single project had begun, according to the Associated Press.

Families from Puerto Rico like Ortiz Acosta’s were housed in Western Massachusetts hotels through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Communities such as Springfield, Holyoke and West Springfield saw an influx of evacuees and Massachusetts schools overall accepted 3,000 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands between October 2017 and March 2018, The Republican previously reported.

Ortiz Acosta, then 19, her mother and her younger brother, 10 at the time, decided to move to Massachusetts after the hurricane. Other relatives in her tight-knit family moved elsewhere in the country — an aunt moved to Pennsylvania and some cousins went to South Carolina.

“We kind of split up,” Ortiz Acosta recalled. A snowy and frosty winter soon followed once the family arrived. With difficulty understanding the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) public transportation routes, Ortiz Acosta said the family struggled with getting where they needed to go and they often had to trudge through the snow.

Beyond getting used to a different climate, the language barrier posed a significant challenge, Ortiz Acosta said.

“It was broken English, but it was broken bad,” Ortiz Acosta said.

Enrolling at UMass

With a need to find permanent housing once the FEMA funds ran out, Ortiz Acosta and her family needed to find work. She applied to several jobs and still vividly remembers being told in one interview that she was not a “good fit” for a “white-based population.”

Ortiz Acosta eventually found work in retail at an H&M clothing store, but since it was part-time, she moved on to work at a distribution warehouse where she often worked 16-hour shifts. Her mother also worked there too, and since she didn’t speak English fluently, she suffered from discrimination, according to Ortiz Acosta.

“She would get verbally abused. That kind of made me realize that I needed to go back to school,” Ortiz Acosta said.

After passing an English proficiency test, she got accepted into Holyoke Community College with the intention of transferring to UMass Amherst after earning her associate’s degree within two years.

At UMass, Ortiz Acosta said she found herself intimidated in her classes surrounded by mostly white peers.

“I know they are trying to get more diversity, but there’s not a lot. I’m not lying to you, I never met a Hispanic taking the same classes with me,” she said.

It wasn’t until she found a professional development program on campus called the UMass Women into Leadership that she began to feel more comfortable among her peers.

Ortiz Acosta credited the program’s executive director, Michelle Goncalves, for creating an inclusive environment and for the direction of the program.

“What she’s done is powerful,” Ortiz Acosta said. “She’s given us an opportunity to grow and also to assess our own selves.”

Reached by the phone on Thursday, Goncalves described Ortiz Acosta as a “smart and strong woman.” Goncalves said the Women into Leadership program is “really designed to encourage people like Tamika.”

“Everything she has been through, it’s amazing, her resilience, her grit is to be applauded,” Goncalves said. “I am so glad she will be going into advocacy, she will be amazing. She has the lived experience to propel her forward and bring the whole community with her and make sure they are supported in any way they need to be.”

Looking towards the future, Ortiz Acosta plans on staying in Western Massachusetts and providing legal services to underserved communities. She wants to work as a paralegal for the next year before applying to law school.

“I have learned to love the Springfield area and Western Mass. area,” Ortiz Acosta said. “We need more resources for the people here. So yeah, I see myself here.”

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