When Nobody Came to Help Me

Protective Factors for College Students During Disasters in Puerto Rico

Maria L. Lara Hernandez
University of Puerto Rico Humacao

Félix A. López-Román
University of Puerto Rico Humacao

Elena Martínez-Torres
Agenda Ciudadana Foundation

Sol C. Molina-Parrilla
University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras

Publication Date: 2021

Executive Summary


In Puerto Rico, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the earthquakes of 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic revealed social inequalities and poverty that left many citizens without proper guarantees of recovery after disasters. Puerto Rico has a poverty level of 45.1%, with 41% of families employed (Cordero et al., 2020). Among young people between the ages of 18 and 24, 50.5% live in poverty, which has led to a deterioration in the standard of living of this population (Cordero et al., 2020). Post-disaster vulnerability was particularly acute among university students. A study we conducted immediately after the hurricanes revealed that more than 60% of university students suffered material and emotional damage, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Lara et al., 2019). In a recent study, in which we also participated, more than 90% of the student body reports being emotionally affected by confinement and the lack of attention they received from government institutions and the university. More than 70% of the students come from highly impoverished communities with little or no access to services of any kind, including technological equipment and internet access, to complete their classes (Torres et al., 20201). Neither of the studies investigated the resilience and protective factors that allowed more than 80% of the students to remain active in the university and complete their studies.

Research Questions and Design

The objective of this research project was to explore resilience and protective factors that allowed students to successfully complete three to four years of college while confronting a series of disasters in addition to sustained poverty in their communities. This research was conducted with undergraduate students at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao (UPRH). Our research questions were: (a) how did students successfully complete their academic studies while confronting disasters? (b) which protective factors have sustained them? (c) which of these protective factors did they identify as most important? and (d) what other protective factors could reduce the emotional impact caused by disasters? The data and testimonies we collected were analyzed using methodological triangulation. We compared and integrated sources of socio-demographic information and recent research with testimonies that the participants offered at the individual and collective level through a survey, in-depth interviews, and focus groups.

Preliminary Findings

The main finding of this study was that the fundamental factor that allowed students to continue their academic studies was empathy as an individual and collective practice. Empathy is not only an understanding of a situation experienced by someone else, it also refers to a skill that allows individuals to pause their own needs to respond to the needs of a person in need. Empathy as an element of resilience also allowed for the development of social capital and the creation of support networks among groups of students, teachers, family, and others. In our research we found that this skill was a type of capital embedded in the practices of individuals who went beyond formal and institutional structures and found ways of helping university students during disasters. Our study shows that people practicing empathy outside of normal institutional structures were one of the main factors that made it possible to retain students at the university throughout the disasters.


This implies that empathy practices should be part of disaster planning. Beyond protecting life and property, disaster management must also ensure that individuals are able to maintain relationships and collaborative networks. In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria, the private enterprise and government sectors disappeared for several weeks. Communities were left on their own to survive, rebuild, and reorganize. After the earthquakes, in the absence of government aid, thousands of Puerto Ricans took the risk of traveling in their cars to help the victims in the southern area. During the pandemic, technology, informal communication, and social networks made it possible to maintain links with social groups. All these actions have in common the element of empathy as a factor of resilience. Our study demonstrates, in the university context, what has been a nationwide perception: the capacity for empathy practices was one of the fundamental elements used to address Puerto Rico’s vulnerability during disasters.

Introduction and Literature Review

In less than three years, university students in Puerto Rico survived multiple disasters (Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, earthquakes, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Despite those challenges, they have continued studying and many are about to complete their bachelor’s degree. This study aimed to identify the factors that allowed students to continue and complete their studies during these disasters. We believe that the protective and resilience mechanisms that allowed the students to continue their academic work will be an important contribution to disaster research. In addition, our research addressed gaps in the literature on protective factors that supported the academic and mental health performance of low-income undergraduate students from the University of Puerto Rico, Humacao Campus (UPRH) during the disasters.

These disasters have revealed the social inequalities and poverty that left many citizens without proper guarantees of recovery. This situation revealed a reality that was often hidden. Puerto Rico has high levels of inequality with a GINI index of 0.547 (Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico, 20182, p.185).Endnote 1 Moreover, Puerto Rico has a poverty level of 45.1% with 41% of families employed. Of those employed, 21.3% live in poverty (Cordero et al., 20203). The poverty rate among young people between the ages of 18 and 24 is 50.5%, which has led to a deterioration in the standard of living (Cordero et al., 2020). When investigating the specific socioeconomic data of the east region, we observed that certain municipalities have poverty levels close to the national level, such as Humacao at 43.3%, and other municipalities have higher levels, such as Yabucoa at 55.2% (Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico, 2018).

This reality led us to the theoretical approach that disasters are a social product and not merely natural events (Tierney, 20144). What turns an event into a disaster are socio-cultural, political, and economic factors that place populations in situations of vulnerability (Fordham et al., 20135). Therefore, disasters can become a form of communication (Britton, 19866) to the extent that the disaster was the expression of social factors that generate vulnerability or inequities in the population (Favero et al., 20147). People living in poverty already face a lack of support structures. In a disaster this problem increases even though the government was supposed to provide guarantees of recovery. In Puerto Rico’s case, community-based organizations, and churches, took over the government’s role of providing communities with services. Above all, these organizations provided solidarity, empathy, and the psychological sense of community that reduces loneliness and anomy in times of crisis (Lara, 20208).

In Puerto Rico, government support actions have been minimal. A recent study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey revealed that only 34% of the petitions for help from citizens who suffered damage during the earthquakes were approved (Torres, 20209). Similarly, federal CARES Act funds have been disbursed in a very small way, and 100,000 cases of fraud have been discovered in the pandemic unemployment funds (Los fraudes contra el PUA reflejan la quiebra social, 202010). Natural disasters should be seen from the social context of an absent government failing to offer stabilization in moments of crisis. López Román (202011 ) wrote about a person displaced by the disasters in a recent article: “We are witnessing a scenario where this uprooted human being is treated… as a superfluous entity, a being that does not even have the ‘right to have rights.” This type of scenario increases the vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s population and limits its capacity to respond in times of disaster.

This type of situation was part of what university students experienced. A study we conducted at UPRH immediately after the hurricanes in October 2017 (see timeline in Figure 1) revealed that more than 60% of the students (n=879) had suffered material and emotional damage including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Lara et al., 2019). Another recent study revealed that more than 90% of the student body reports being emotionally affected by confinement and the lack of attention from government institutions and the university. More than 70% of this student body comes from highly impoverished communities with little or no access to services of any kind, including technological equipment and internet access, to complete their classes (Torres et al., 202012). However, protective factors were not investigated in either study even though more than 80% of this student body was able to remain active in the university and to complete their studies. Therefore, it was necessary to investigate the protective factors and resilience that allowed students to continue their academic work.

Figure 1. Disasters and Research Activities Timeline

The normal social order was fractured before, during, and after the disasters (CONVERGE, n.d.13). At each of these stages, populations employed resilience mechanisms or protective factors that allowed them to recover from adverse situations. The same was true with the concepts of vulnerability and resilience. Both concepts, as Tierney (202014) mentions, are not opposites, but rather maintain a complex relationship because vulnerable populations may have a great capacity for resilience (p. 174). Consequently, we can consider disasters as the social form assumed by an event that disrupts and transforms the established social order. Such events are also manifestations of the vulnerability and resilience capacity of populations.

The concept of resilience has been defined in many ways (Tierney, 2020). The definitions point to the capacity or ability to cope with disasters not only to re-establish an established social order but also to create new practices. We assume for this study that resilience implies the capacity to resist, manage, and adapt to changes as a result of various disasters. By defining disaster as a social product, resilience practices become transformative alternatives to the previously established social orders. We welcome the resilience concept used by Tierney (2014) when she states, “...because risk and vulnerability are outcomes of the exercise of political and economic power in their various forms, confronting risk also means confronting power” (p. 9). In this sense, we are not assuming a neoliberal definition of resilience that tries to reinsert the individual as soon as possible in the productive order or in the capital circuit (Han, 202115).

Resilience practices require defining protective factors as a unit of analysis that identifies specific elements that serve to manage a risk or vulnerability in times of disasters (Luthar & Cicchetti, 200016). These factors can be used across political, economic, geographic, and social domains. We proposed to approach this study through the social domain, which includes family relationships, communities, peers, among others. We do not assume resilience as an exclusive capacity of individuals but as a complex set of factors that involve the individual as a relational entity and not as a separate entity excluded from the whole social collective. For this study we identified those protective factors that promoted students’ resilience during the disasters. From the identified factors, we will analyze which factors were most important for helping the students continue their university studies. Based on our conceptual and theoretical framework, we understand that these protective factors are also an expression of how they faced their own vulnerability.

One way to observe this social domain is through the idea of social capital, which refers to the networks and relationships that can be used to cope with disasters (Tierney, 2020; Aldrich & Meyer, 201517; Mayunga, 200918; Norris et al., 200819). The social capital concept was linked to theories developed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu, the social world was collectively constructed and individuals did not live in a social void. Instead, people were positioned differently in the social space according to the types of capital they managed (Bourdieu, 200220). He believes that capitals are resources that allow collectives to make, order, and represent their social world. Social capital is the capacity to create networks and relationships between individuals and groups, these can be divided, according to Tierney (2020), into bonding social capital (relationships that exist in particular groups), bridging capital (links that exist between groups), and linking capital (the capacity to influence authorities and power groups). Investigating protective factors allowed us to see what alternative academic practices could become institutional policies to help university students continue studying during times of disaster.


Research Questions

The research questions for this project were:

  1. How did undergraduate students, from the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao (UPRH), successfully complete three to four college years, while confronting a series of disasters and the sustained impoverishment of their families and communities?

  2. What protective factors sustained them and in what domains?

  3. Which factors do they identify as most important?

  4. What other protective factors reduced the emotional impact of the disasters?

Study Site Description

The research was conducted with undergraduate students at the UPRH. The UPRH is in the east-central region of Puerto Rico and serves approximately 3,500 students from 16 municipalities.


Our research approach was methodological triangulation. We compared and integrated different sources of socio-demographic information and recent research with participant testimonies through surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. This methodology offers us a more complex view of the resilience practices that students used to continue their education, rather than the repeatability of the observational findings (Okuda & Gómez, 2005 21). As Okuda and Gómez (2005) state, “the art of this type of triangulation is to elucidate the different complementary parts of the whole phenomenon and to analyze why different methods yield different results.” We used protective factors as the unit of analysis to better understand how students managed the impact of three different disasters over a three-year period.

Sample Size, Participants, Data Collection and Procedures

We chose to sample 50 participants for the study. The invitation was made to undergraduate students at UPRH who were in their third to fifth year (see timeline in Figure 1). One-hundred and forty-one students responded and completed the prequalification form with interest in participating in the study (see copy of form in Appendix B). Out of the 141 students, 131 met the requirements and were sent the informed consent form (see copy of form in Appendix C). Fifty-two students completed and returned the informed consent form. All were given a code or ID to protect their identity. Subsequently, the sociodemographic data survey and a resilience scale was sent to them electronically. Forty-one of the 52 students participated in the first phase of the study (see the participants’ sociodemographic data in Table 1 and copy of the survey in Appendix D).

At the end of the survey, each participant received a link to access an invitation for an interview (see copy of invitation in Appendix E). Thirty-nine students participated in the second phase of the study (in-depth interviews). The interviews used a 19-question template with open-ended and semi-structured questions. All were conducted through the Zoom platform and lasted approximately 40 to 50 minutes. Researchers and their assistants facilitated the interviews. The interviews were recorded and transcribed following the protocols for the Protection of Human Subjects (see interview instrument in Appendix F).

As a third phase, we coordinated six focus groups of six to eight people each on different dates. Thirty-nine students participated in the third phase of the study (using the Zoom platform). Each focus group had a researcher and an assistant. An instrument with four open-ended questions was designed. The focus groups ranged from 45 to 60 minutes in length (see instrument in Appendix G).

Table 1. Participant Sociodemographic Dataa

Age 20 years 22%
21 years 34%
22 years 27%
23 years 10%
24 years 2%
25 years 5%
Gender Female 83%
Male 17%
Non-binary 0%
Transgender 0%
I would rather not say 0%
Academic Year 3rd year 32%
4th 39%
5th 27%
6th 2%
Residential Area Rural 37%
Urban 63%
Other 0%
Region East Region (UPRH service area) 95%
Other regions 5%
Annual Home Income 14,999 or less 32%
15,000-24,999 15%
25,000-34,999 12%
35,000-44,999 15%
45,000-54,999 3%
55,000-64,999 12%
65,000-74,999 2%
75,000-84,999 0%
85,000-94,999 1%
95,000-104,999 5%
105,000 or more 2%
Note. No participants identified as nonbinary, transgender, or other. Likewise, no one chose the “I would rather not say” field.

Data Analysis

Once the interview and focus group templates were completed, the responses were transferred to tables in Microsoft Excel. Next, the responses were categorized by question in the Atlas.ti platform. This platform allowed us to gather frequencies of expressions per question, produce graphs reflecting these frequencies, and interpret the results to address the research questions. Each technique’s results were contrasted through methodological triangulation to broaden our understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.

Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations

Following Human Subjects Protection protocols, all personal information identifying the interviewees was separated from the consent form, the surveys, and interviews. All surveys were stored separately from the informed consent forms. Once the results are published, raw data will be destroyed. The associated risks with this study were minimal or equal to the discomfort that may be felt when answering questions on any other form or survey. Participants were informed that, if they felt any discomfort or did not wish to answer any question, they had the right not to answer or to stop the interview. We hope that student input and testimonies about protective factors that promote and strengthen student retention and success in university settings will provide strategies that can be replicated in pre- and in-service programs. Participants will benefit by becoming more aware of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and emotional intelligence that have enabled them to develop resilience over time. This competency is something that students will be able to manage to their advantage in personal and professional life.



General Sociodemographic Profile and General Population Data

The results of the 41 students’ sample coincided with the general data for the rest of the island as well as with the poverty rate for families with an average of four members (47%). The poverty rate does not consider that part of the members were university students, whose expenses were much higher than those of a family with children under 18 years of age. The academic profile was also consistent in age and current year. It was noteworthy that more than 95% of the students maintain a GPA of 3.00 or higher even though they have been impacted by three consecutive disasters. This last data correlates positively when the results of the resilience scale were observed, where more than 50% of the group responded, “Almost always” and Often” in the four protective factors measured by the scale, such as “persistence, tenacity, self-efficiency”, “adaptability”, “assertiveness”, and “support networks”, among others. In other words, we observed high levels of resilience correlating with high levels of academic achievement.

The results of the characteristics of both parts were summarized as follows: 83% percent of the students were between 20–22 years of age and 95% were single. In terms of gender, 83% of participants identified as female and 17% as male, coinciding with their biological sex, although all known identities were presented. Regarding religious beliefs, 76% of the students identified with Christian beliefs and 24% with other beliefs. Of the 16 municipalities served by the UPRH, 12 were represented. As for the residential area, 63% of the students reside in urban areas while 37% live in rural areas. In terms of family composition 51% were formed by four people while the rest of the participants were divided into families ranging between three and five members. Forty-seven percent of students had household incomes of less than $25,000 a year. Being, on average, families of four people per household, each member has about $6,250 per year. To cover or supplement their expenses, 46% of our sample reports they work part-time while 54% do not work. Between part-time employment, government assistance, and other forms of income (such as informal employment), students cover their personal and college expenses. As far as services and infrastructure were concerned, the vast majority, or more than 75% of the respondents receive ongoing energy and water services, as well as adequate housing.

Regarding the students’ academic profile, most of the students (73%) were not first-generation college students. Ninety-eight percent were between the third and fifth years of study with the highest percentage being in the fourth year (39%). The student population was broken down by department. The Natural Sciences department dominated the sample (49%), followed by Social Sciences (15%).

The second part of the survey used the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (Broche-Pérez et al., 201222), adapted by the researchers, with 26 statements divided into four main factors: 1) persistence, tenacity, self-efficiency; 2) adaptability to change and control under pressure; 3) assertiveness and positive orientation; and 4) support networks and spirituality. The most significant results were summarized below demonstrating a high level of resiliency.

Persistence, Tenacity, Self-efficiency

According to the answers of this first factor, we observed that the affirmative answers (“Almost always” or “Often”) in all the premises ranged from 51% to 93%, the average being 74% of all the answers (see Table 2). These protective factors reflect a high self-will and confidence. Some examples of these statements were: “I prefer to try to solve things by myself, rather than let others do it for me,” and “I work to achieve my goals regardless of the difficulties along the way,” “I take pride in my achievements.”

Table 2. Resilience Scale Results: Persistence, Tenacity, and Self-efficacy Premises

Premises Always Frequently Sometimes Rarely Never
I can face any situation without any problems. 12.2%, 5 43.9%, 18 34.1%, 14 7.3%, 3 2.4%, 1
The successes I have had in the past give me confidence to face new challenges. 39%, 16 31.7%, 13 24.4%, 10 4.9%, 2 0
I face every challenge knowing that they will make me a stronger person. 39%, 16 26.8%, 11 19.5%, 8 12.2%, 5 2.4%, 1
I believe every situation (good or bad) happens for a reason or purpose. 75.6%, 31 17.1%, 7 4.9%, 2 0 2.4%, 1
I give my all to any situation regardless of the result. 53.7%, 22 31.7%, 13 14.6%, 6 0 0
Obstacles are not a problem to achieve my goals. 26.8%, 11 29.3%, 12 39%, 16 2.4%, 1 2.4%, 1
I do not give up even though things seem to have no solution. 43.6%, 18 34.1%, 14 14.6%, 6 7.3%, 3 0
I would rather try to fix things for myself than let others do it for me. 63.4%, 26 29.3%, 12 4.9%, 2 2.4%, 1 0
I get easily discouraged by failure. 14.6%, 6 9.8%, 4 39%, 16 31.7%, 13 4.9%, 2
I believe that I am a strong person when faced with life challenges and difficulties. 34.1%, 14 41.5%, 17 14.6%, 6 9.8%, 4 0
I am very clear about my life purpose. 19.5%, 8 34.1%, 14 34.1%, 14 9.8%, 4 2.4%, 1
I feel that I have full control of my life. 4.9%, 2 46.3%, 19 36.6%, 15 7.3%, 3 4.9%, 2
I work to achieve my goals regardless of difficulties along the way. 63.4%, 26 31.7%, 13 4.9%, 2 0 0
I am proud of my achievements. 75.6%, 31 12.2%, 5 12.2%, 5 0 0

Adaptability to Change and Control Under Pressure

On these factors, in which the feeling of self-control and ability to adapt to changes are apparent, 58% of the participants responded “Almost always” or “Often” in the statements, ranging from 51% to 71% with affirmative answers. Examples such as “During times of stress or crisis, I know where I can seek help” or “I usually recover quickly after illness, injury, or other difficulties.”

Assertiveness and Positive Orientation

This factor reflects responses associated with confidence in oneself and in what one’s experience and knowledge can accomplish. Of this protective factor, one of them reflects an assertive competence: “I welcome challenges and trials,” with 61% of responses in “Almost always” or “Often”.

Support Networks and Spirituality

The combination of having and knowing who to trust and the sense that there was someone or something beyond oneself that supports the ultimate achievement were described. High responses such as “I have at least one trusted person who helps me when I am stressed” with 68%, and “When I do not have clear solutions to my problems, I put everything in God’s hands because I know he will be able to help me” with 61%.

In-Depth Interviews

Most of the interviewees mentioned having to change behaviors to keep up with their academic tasks (see Figure 2). These changes were mainly related to two specific areas: study time management and study space management. They also expressed that they had to make changes to manage their emotions and to cope with technologies. Some behavioral changes they undertook were associated with time management. That meant they changed their study schedules to when Internet speed was better, coupling their sleep and work schedules with their home Internet signal or according to the schedule of their neighbors who provided them with electricity. They adjusted their schedules to dedicate more time to studies. They stopped getting involved in activities and stopped working or worked fewer hours so that they would have time to complete assignments. For other students, they had to start working because their parents’ income was reduced or lost due to the pandemic. In addition, they made changes with their families to establish sharing times, receive support for completing assignments, and negotiated study spaces. Some moved in with relatives to be closer to the university and to stay focused. As for emotional changes, self-motivation helped them cope with all the abrupt changes. It kept them attached to the university. They attempted to control negative emotions and practiced compassion for themselves.

Figure 2. Individual Changes and Adjustments

Regarding family, community, and university domains, the information provided demonstrates that students need emotional support to continue their academic studies. Family and church were the sectors that contributed the most in terms of emotional and resource support. Classmates also provided emotional support and stood out for the support they provided when it came to completing their academic duties (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. Word Cloud: Support for Students

Figure 4. Expressions about Sectors and Support

This type of emotional support was linked to transmitting motivation, talking, listening, a space for venting, understanding, and encouragement, among others. It was important to emphasize the distribution of this support was not equal among each family member (see Figure 5). For example, many of the expressions related to emotional support were related to a mother figure, while the expressions related to providing resources were linked to the father figure.

Figure 5. University Sectors and Support

Churches seem to be the community organization that provided the most help during the disasters. In addition, the type of help provided was diverse because they became emotional and spiritual support centers while providing resources to students. One student said, “after [Hurricane] Maria, the church was a center where shopping was delivered. They also provided emotional help. In the pandemic, the church provided emotional and spiritual help. It’s a space to vent with others and socialize”.

At the university, 59% of the participants (Figure 5) indicated that most of the support they received came from their peers (classmates and friends at the university). They describe this support as a help with class work, sharing notes, and clarification of course information, but also as an emotional support because it was a space where they could express how they feel. An interesting element of the testimonies was the thoughtfulness of peers and how the support was linked to being in the same condition or sharing the same academic challenges due to disasters. On the other hand, when referring to the support they received from other sectors of the university, 24% expressed that their main support came from professors and 16% from institutional offices. These two sectors also emphasized a sense of understanding of the situation rather than formal support. Regarding professors, they noted that not all professors were supportive and that those who were understood the situation that they were going through.

Focus Groups

The focus groups highlighted five areas or practices that they agreed were the most beneficial in guaranteeing conditions that would enable them to keep studying despite the impact of their socio-environmental and emotional conditions (see Table H1). Among all of them peer and family support networks stood out in terms of guaranteeing resources and services as well as in supporting them emotionally. They also brought personal competencies both at the attitudinal and adaptive levels, which provided the basis for adapting to the contingencies and challenges of each day. To a lesser extent, given that these were fewer formal or institutionalized expressions and experiences, they reported receiving support and services from faculty, psychological, and counseling services. All students emphasized that the presence or absence of these experiences played a significant role in keeping them motivated or in discouraging them from making progress. At the center of the groups’ analysis there was empathy practices. The behavior the students saw in family members, classmates, neighbors, in some teachers and even in administrative and security personnel to be there for them, listen to them, understand their situations, respond to their needs, and be with them in difficult moments was what mattered most.

The groups were asked: What should be done to prevent the student population from dropping out of the university? Although recommendations were asked from the individual to the institutional level, all recommendations were directed to the university and in some cases to the municipality. In general, the areas of planning, coordination, communication, and creation of programs that concentrate their resources and services on the felt needs of the student body were highlighted. They proposed the creation of mentoring projects at the peer and alumni level, and training for faculty and staff so that they can respond appropriately and with greater empathy at times when the physical and psycho-emotional infrastructure was destroyed by a disaster. The core of the message was that in the event of a disaster “normality” was altered and must be acted upon by adopting flexible and sensitive measures that address the new realities of the entire university community.


The methodological triangulation was based on each individual’s summary of results, so that we could observe and analyze the findings each provided about their socioeconomic and academic living conditions; their perceptions and attitudes towards life and adverse situations; their testimonies of how they faced disasters while studying at university, and their reflections on what worked and what should change. Students lived in historically precarious conditions with little or no governmental support. Their families, churches, classmates, and even some professors or counselors (sometimes in equally precarious conditions) have accompanied them to survive and remain active and motivated. Unsurprisingly, they have been able to embrace very assertive and tenacious postures; they have been persistent and optimistic, as a way of coping with hardships they have experienced long before disasters struck. In short, assuming the narrative that staying and finishing college, seems to be their call to get ahead (see Figure 6). This resilient factor could be observed from the individual level with these internalizations and be reflected in their collective behaviors; identifying with other classmates in the same situation, supporting, and seeking support in their nuclear circles and establishing empathy practices with professors and other sectors that face the same situations. There was a sense that the collective has great value and that maintaining an attitude of not leaving anyone behind enhances their character and their will to move forward. We saw how in the focus groups, the core of the achievements was emotional support, networks, empathy, and a cooperative attitude. They praised and recognized the value of their families, friends, people at the university, and in church, as essential supports. They also overflow with recommendations and proposals to prevent, strengthen, transform, and sensitize the university according to the felt needs. In short, we see in the administered instruments diverse contents and simultaneously they inform the context and the experiences that may have influenced the protective factors that have generated inherent and adaptive resilience.

Figure 6. Triangulation: Protective Factors


Key Findings

The primary finding of this study was that empathy was the fundamental factor that allowed students to continue their academic studies. Empathy originates from the Greek pathos which could be translated as being affected or being with the affected. It was not only an understanding of the situation experienced by the other, empathy is also a skill that allows us to pause our own needs to create a capacity that allows us to respond to the true needs of the affected person. In this study, such a binding understanding with the other was based on several factors. One was living in the same situation as the affected person (e.g., family, classmates). Another was the ability to step out of traditional roles to understand the other person from the situation he/she was living (e.g., teachers or counseling personnel). Many students expressed that their family or classmates were going through the same situation and, therefore, became a support network. On the other hand, students also distinguished the help of some professors and university staff for their ability to step outside established norms or rules and create support mechanisms for them. If we use the two kinds of resilience named as “inherent resilience,” regarding potential, and “adaptive resilience,” regarding activation of such potential (Tierney, 2014 p. 173), we can see that in the survey’s results the students mentioned a high capacity of inherent factors that allowed them to adapt and manage their academic studies in disaster situations. However, to manifest this inherent capacity it has to be activated. That element of activation was found in the support networks that the students expressed, which became the social capital that allowed them to manage their emotions, generate concentration in their studies, create changes in the organization of time and space, and support each other in academic tasks (see Figure 6).

In that sense, empathy practices, as an element of resilience also allowed students to develop social capital and to create support networks. The type of social capital that developed, using Tierney’s typology (2020), was a “bonding social capital” that refers to the elements of integration between members of existing support groups. However, from the conceptual framework on capitals, Pierre Bourdieu (200823, p. 107) mentions that the capitals management creates embodied and objectified practices. The distinction between the two refers to practices that were embedded in everyday actions and practices that have become institutional policies. In our research we found that social capital based on empathy practices that promoted the resilience of university students was embedded in the individuals who managed to reinvent ways of helping and supporting each other. The ability to place oneself in the same place as the student was the condition, as Bourdieu himself mentions, that not only allows “the concertation of practices but also the practices of concertation” (2008, p. 96). When discussing the theoretical framework, we assumed, along with Tierney, that if disasters are social products and their effects are linked to political and economic conditioning resilience becomes a confrontation with the powers that make populations vulnerable. One of the effects of power is individuation and the attempt to dismantle the collective actions that sustain a population’s empathy. Resilience then becomes a confrontation with the power that has turned politics, in the words of Clara Valverde (201524), into necropolitics.Endnote 2 The capacity of empathy practices to increase resilience is a way of counteracting that kind of politics.

Implications for Public Health Practice

Government and communities need to agree on policies, as well as the responsibilities of various institutions to minimize the collateral damage caused by disasters, especially post-traumatic stress associated with abandonment, disorientation, and neglect by insensitive bureaucracies. Empathy practices should be part of the plan. Some implications for establishing public health and disaster work policies are:

  • Planning relationships: It was necessary to plan and create spaces for social interaction that allow the creation of trust networks for listening, talking, and mutual support.Endnote 3
  • Ability to empathize: We must create conditions and training for empathy practices during disasters. This will consist of training for listening, for attentiveness, and for mutual understanding of the diverse situations experienced in disasters.
  • Space for noninstitutionalized action (the space for creativity): conditions must be created so that citizens know they have the possibility to act creatively outside of normal institutional frameworks.
  • Moratorium: Institutions should put a hold on requirements, tuition payments and deadlines when disasters occur.

Dissemination of Findings

In addition to sharing the results with the university community and research participants in a virtual forum (or face-to-face if conditions apply), we will present at the conferences and activities organized by the National Hazards Center. We will prepare a press release to present a summary of findings and disseminate the public policy recommendations that we know can benefit all educational institutions in Puerto Rico. We will also design a deliberative dialogue involving representatives of the 11 campuses in the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) system, as well as officials from the UPR president’s office, and community groups.


Trying to investigate the three-year impact of three consecutive disasters on students in the six-month period allowed for our research limited how deeply we could focus on their shared experiences and the magnitude of their impact. Time constraints also affected recruitment since outreach was limited to emails given the order not to enter the campus because of COVID-19. The sample population failed to reach levels of gender representativeness, even though more than 131 students expressed interest in participating. Also, even with a high level of representation of 10 different departments, the highest percentage of respondents were students in the natural sciences department. The online courses may have limited the scope of communication with the students. During interviews and focus groups we observed that many students still suffer from stress, depression, and anxiety.

Future Research Directions

It is important to follow up with these students in a longitudinal study, because we studied the impact of three catastrophes on a small group. We believe it is important to research the deeper impact the disasters had on the students through their testimonies of emotional damage. In addition, it is important to view the research with professors from a participant observation stance. The researchers have not yet been investigated because they were survivors of the same disasters they were investigating. We plan to interview the professors about their management of disasters, so that they can amplify the impact of their experiences. Also, we intend to investigate the risk factors observed during the study. We recognize that we underestimated this part of our study based on the research that has already been carried out. Finally, we are interested in following up with students who have left the university to identify and understand the factors that affected them.

Acknowledgements. We acknowledge and give credit to the team of research assistants Yeira López-Dávila, Nawale Morales-Méndez, Karina Rosario-Flahaty and Wilmarie Quiñones Del Pino.  


Endnote 1: GINI is a statistical measure of the distribution of income across an entire population.

Endnote 2: By necropolitics, we refer to the set of policies that are no longer designed to improve the living conditions of the population, instead they constitute forms of discreet violence that eliminate rights, social protections, and promote the exclusion of populations from basic resources for an adequate and dignified life.

Endnote 3: The focus group technique itself became not only a space to obtain information but also a space for catharsis and support among the students themselves. On focus groups and their value as a tool for social research and support in times of disaster, see Peek & Fothergill (200925)


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Suggested Citation:

Lara Hernandez, M.L., López-Román, F.A., Martínez-Torres, E., & Molina-Parrilla, S.C. (2021). When Nobody Came to Help Me: Protective Factors for College Students During Disasters in Puerto Rico (Natural Hazards Center Public Health Disaster Research Report Series, Report 3). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/public-health-disaster-research/when-nobody-came-to-help-me

Lara Hernandez, M.L., López-Román, F.A., Martínez-Torres, E., & Molina-Parrilla, S.C. (2021). When Nobody Came to Help Me: Protective Factors for College Students During Disasters in Puerto Rico (Natural Hazards Center Public Health Disaster Research Report Series, Report 3). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/public-health-disaster-research/when-nobody-came-to-help-me