Hurricanes hasten need for tech program in Puerto Rico

Andrés Diaz González (left), a faculty member and academic coordinator of the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute affiliated Universidad Metropolitana, plans a fiber optic technician program with Francisco J. Rivera, the institute’s lab manager, during the Mentor-Connect workshop. (Photo: David Hata)

The imperative for Universidad Metropolitana to start a full-fledged fiber optic technician education program was reinforced for Andrés Diaz González when he spent three hours on October 13, 2017, trying to find an internet connection to submit the college’s Mentor-Connect application.

Weeks earlier, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria on September 20 and damaged by the smaller yet still destructive Hurricane Irma on September 6.

Just hours before the Mentor-Connect deadline on October 13, Diaz González received his institution’s letter of support. With it, he was ready to send the completed Mentor-Connect application from his laptop computer.

However, internet service was limited to a few San Juan neighborhoods where underground optical fiber systems were still working. Diaz González drove around looking for intersections where people had gathered to talk on cell phones. Because the service intermittently cut out even in these places, he hit send multiple times from various locations before he received confirmation that the Mentor-Connect application had been transmitted.

Filling a critical need

Universidad Metropolitana is one of 21 two-year colleges selected to receive Mentor-Connect mentoring and technical assistance for the next nine months to prepare a grant proposal for the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program.

Diaz González, who is a faculty member and academic coordinator of the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute affiliated with Universidad Metropolitana, and Francisco J. Rivera, the institute’s lab manager, attended the Mentor-Connect Technical Assistance Workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Marcos Santini, a photonics student at Universidad Metropolitana, interned at Critical Hub Networks in the fall, and now works for the IT infrastructure company. (Photo: Critical Hub Networks)

There, they conferred with their mentor, Jim Hyder, an instructional designer and nanotechnology instructor for Arizona’s Rio Salado College, about their plans to create a degree program for fiber optic technicians. The institute’s current certificate and associate degree programs emphasize lasers and photonics and use curricula developed by the ATE-funded National Center for Optics and Photonics Education.

“With everything that happened with [Hurricane] Maria, we are definitely going to focus more on fiber optics because that is the current need … That way, we know our students will have greater opportunities in the job market. But, it’s also what Puerto Rico really needs right now and in the future,” Diaz González said.

Photonics student Marcos Santini, who had an internship at Critical Hub Networks, Inc., in the fall, now works full time for the IT infrastructure company that uses fiber optic technologies.

“It gives us great satisfaction that we were able to help our student,” Diaz González said.

Teaching as best they can

During interviews, Diaz González and Rivera talked about the extraordinary efforts by faculty and staff to help students and each other after the hurricanes. They also described what educators have done to keep the educational enterprise going without electricity and other basics.

Many Universidad Metropolitana classes were taught outside under tents because buildings were unsafe due to wind, water, or mold damage. Diaz González and a colleague took turns traveling to a remote campus to instruct a student who could not make it to the San Juan campus.

Mentor-Connect: Helping colleges fine-tune their grant proposals

Rivera moved all the portable photonics equipment he could from the institute to the physics lab on the main campus in order to hold photonics classes. Many expensive pieces of equipment remain inaccessible at the institute, which is currently being cleaned to remove mold that followed water damage.

In addition to dealing with the massive cleanup, Puerto Rico residents have had the aggravation of standing in hours-long lines at banks, grocery stores and gas stations. Diaz González and Rivera both said their personal situations are much better than what people have endured where electricity and phone services still haven’t been restored.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.