Along the two-and-a-half-hour drive to practice across the mountains of Puerto Rico each day, Maria Acosta had plenty of time to talk with her father about what she wanted to do when she got older. The sixth-grader’s future appeared to be set in stone. Maria dreamed of attending college, becoming an All-American, and eventually a professional volleyball player, which was OK with dad, who, in his younger days, was among the top tennis players on the island.

“My mom and dad went on dates to the school gym,” said Maria, in jest, as she looked back on her turbulent journey and ahead to December 11 when she will graduate from Broward College with an associate degree in Marketing. “Sports ran in our blood, and I lived and breathed volleyball.”

But the inevitable changed as quickly as the twists and turns of a deadly weather pattern that bore her name. On the morning of September 17, 2017, Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, leaving 20-year-old Maria and 3.4 million residents like her without electricity and the power to recover for many months to come.

Maria said the winds and rains from the storm sounded like the end of the world. For many, it was. Hurricane Maria killed an estimated 2,975 people in Puerto Rico. It also destroyed the restaurant where Maria worked as a waitress, washing away her ability to pay for the classes she took at the University of Puerto Rico. For what seemed like an eternity, Maria spent her days attending to the needs of her neighbors, bartering for food and emergency supplies and wiping away tears. Her life’s plan was not even on pause; it appeared to have completely ended.

Tuition Assistance

Maria Acosta
Maria Acosta

Desperate times demanded bolder measures. One month after the storm, Maria and her older sister packed some sweaters and went to live with an aunt on the mainland. Maria took a job at a daycare center in Virginia, where her older counterparts warned she might never leave.

Maria was scared and tormented by frequent panic attacks. While her family coped with the damaged electrical grid, roads, and bridges and razed homes and business back home in Puerto Rico, Maria took her father’s advice. She moved to Florida where she enrolled at Broward College, which offered in-state tuition to her and other displaced victims of Hurricane Maria. The Federal Emergency Management Administration also provided Maria and her sister with temporary housing at a local hotel, about a 40-minute walk from the College’s A. Hugh Adams Central Campus. To meet living expenses and pay for her education, Maria worked full-time as a volleyball instructor for school-aged kids in Davie. But, the skies did not part for her overnight.

One morning, Maria and her sister woke to an eviction notice. The FEMA funds had dried up, and she had to be out of the hotel by noon. Without a place to stay or leave their belongings, the sisters roamed the streets of Davie until their parents could scrape up the last of their financial resources to secure a loan for the down payment on a small apartment for their daughters.

“I had hit rock bottom,” said Maria. “My parents were trying to do everything they could for us, but they had nothing left. I wanted to win my life back.  So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Instead of slowing down, I asked for more.”

Better Days Ahead

Even though she was working full-time and carried a heavy course load, Maria tried out for the Broward College women’s volleyball team that spring. She not only made the team; she was eventually awarded a full scholarship for her dedication and hard work. Maria returned on that investment. She made the dean’s list, was selected into the Phi Theta Kappa Junior College Honor Society and finished her last volleyball season with all-academic and all-Southern Conference second-team accolades.

Those honors she said are no match for the time she showed off her apartment to her parents, who visited Davie to see their daughter’s home-away-from-home. While looking around, she remembers her dad turning to say, “We did it. Everything we planned when you were a kid, you did.”

Maria believes that even better days are ahead. She is looking forward to completing her bachelor’s degree, being a part of the ongoing recovery process in Puerto Rico, and, of course, the Broward College commencement ceremonies.

“I’m going to be thinking about the hotel, what I had to put up with and what I had to do — and the conversations on those drives to volleyball practice with my dad,” she said. “But, mostly, I’m going to think about how much I deserve this.”

In times of trouble, Broward College has a history of providing a helping hand to students who need emotional support and financial assistance. Learn more about aid and eligibility here.