‘I’m making a new life here’: A student’s journey to Newark after Hurricane Maria

Kristal Sepulveda can cite the exact moment when her old life ended and her new one began: 5:48 p.m., Oct. 18, 2017.

Four weeks earlier, Hurricane Maria had crashed into Puerto Rico, leaving her hometown of Arecibo in tatters. Kristal’s aunt had died after the storm and her school was shuttered, yet she could still imagine things returning to something like normal — until 5:48 p.m. on Oct. 18. At that moment, a plane bound for Newark, New Jersey lifted off from the island, taking her and her mother with it.

“That changed all my life,” said Kristal, 17, now a senior at Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M. in the North Ward.

In the six months since Maria’s devastation, an estimated 24,400 Puerto Rican students have left the island and enrolled in schools on the U.S. mainland. Newark, which is home to a large Puerto Rican population, has taken in 168 students since the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, according to district officials.

The Newark school district has gone to great lengths to ease the burden on the displaced students and their families. Officials informed schools that students should be enrolled immediately regardless of whether they had birth certificates or immunization records. Students received uniform vouchers and school supplies, while their families were connected with health and employment services. The district even hosted a “Family Boutique” to distribute free winter coats, household items, and baby clothes.

And yet, as Kristal already understood when she began the 1,600-mile journey from Puerto Rico to Newark that evening in October, starting from scratch in a new school in a new city is daunting no matter how much support you have.

“I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God,’” Kristal recalled recently. “I’m making a new life here — without my friends, without my family.”

This is the first in what will be a regular feature called “How I Got Here” about the lives and school choices of Newark students, parents, and educators. If you know someone we should profile, we’d love to hear from you.

The storm

Just before the Category 4 hurricane made landfall on the island, Kristal’s mother, Lynnette Figueroa, said she received a divine message in her dream: Pray for your house.

She did. And when the storm passed and many of her neighbors’ homes had been leveled, hers was still standing.

“My flesh was nervous,” said Figueroa, 52, “but my spirit was calm because God stayed with us.”

Figueroa brought her neighbors water and cooked them hot dogs on her outdoor grill, since the entire island was without electricity. In order to buy gas, she spent a full day and night in her car waiting in a line that seemed to stretch for miles.

“She’s like my superhero,” Kristal said.

But there were some obstacles Figueroa could not surmount. She could not make it in time to see her sister, who died of a heart complication after the storm. And she could not reopen Kristal’s high school or the preschool where she had taught, which the storm destroyed.

So when Figueroa’s other sister offered to pay for their plane tickets so they could come live with her in Newark, she accepted. In October, as the plane ascended into the evening sky, she mourned for her homeland.

“It’s at that moment,” she said through tears, “that I realize how much we love Puerto Rico.”

A new life

The pair moved into a ground-floor apartment down the street from Figueroa’s sister. Kristal was assigned to a nearby school inside the former Barringer High School.

Barringer, which now houses two smaller high schools, was once notorious for its violence and dysfunction. Its reputation scared Kristal, so instead she found a job at a local restaurant.

But six weeks later, she worked up the nerve to enroll. She was surprised by what she found when she started at Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M. in December.

“The teachers and the students were very nice with me because they know I was from the hurricane,” she said. “They were telling me, ‘I’m so glad you’re here and that you’re OK.’”

Many of her classes are taught in Spanish, since a full 46 percent of her classmates last year were still learning English — nearly four times the district rate. Her favorite class is forensic science. At home, she’s started watching “ER” and “Forensic Files.”

She dreams of becoming a pediatrician — or maybe a forensic scientist — and is waiting to learn whether she has been accepted into a small liberal arts college in New Jersey. This summer, she hopes to visit Puerto Rico and attend prom at her old high school, which has reopened.

For now, she has made a point of introducing herself to new students when they arrive at her school. She knows what it’s like to land somewhere new and try to build a life.

“I go and talk to her or him like, ‘Are you new? My name is Kristal,’” she said. “So he or she can feel good.”