Penn State students join together to help communities in Puerto Rico

MCKEESPORT, Pa. — Spring Break — the ultimate vacation for some college students, but for others, it means hard work. This year Penn State students from across the Commonwealth chose hard work and opted for an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) assisting communities devastated by natural disasters. 

The four Penn State campuses of Greater Allegheny, New Kensington, Behrend (Erie) and Harrisburg came together to rebuild multiple communities in Puerto Rico. 

Larissa Ciuca, Greater Allegheny’s registrar, grew up in Puerto Rico and reflected on what it meant to see students help after Hurricane Maria.

“It is wonderful to see students from our campus community go to Puerto Rico to help revitalize the area and experience the culture,” said Ciuca. “It is not only an amazing civic engagement opportunity but also a true lesson in resiliency, to see how the island and citizens are rebuilding, slowly but surely and with some help from friends and neighbors. ¡Puerto Rico se Levanta!”

Students and staff started ASB with complications at the airport on Saturday, March 2, when weather caused flight delays. The entire team made it to San Juan on March 3.

“It was a bit hectic, to say the least,” said Greater Allegheny student Raeann Sleith. "No matter the struggle that we have gone through, it will never add up to the struggle that the people of Puerto Rico have gone through.”

Over the next seven days, the students worked, fixed, built and repainted homeowners’ houses; cleaned up a Montessori school; helped a reservation clear brush; and visited the Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico. 

“As a facilitator, I could not have asked for a more hard-working, dedicated group of students," said Louise Whyte-Aravich, student activities coordinator for Greater Allegheny. “Everyone worked really well together and put their whole hearts into helping.”

When not serving others, students were able to experience local culture, walking through towns, eating cuisines, and sailing in a chartered boat. 

“We had the chance to stop by the kiosks in Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Some of the vendors sold authentic Puerto Rican food, such as al capurrias, arepas, tostones, chicharrón,” said Ronni Corbett, a student at Greater Allegheny. “However, the number-one dish students purchased was monfongo, which is a mashed plantains-based dish mixed in with your meat of choice, in our case pork, and vegetables.”

Read more about the students' experiences at