Graceland University Students Experience Culture in Puerto Rico

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October 9, 2018

Graceland University Students Experience Culture in Puerto Rico

As the anniversary passes of the deadly devastation Hurricane Maria left on Puerto Rico and several other island countries, many remember all those affected and still dealing with the aftermath of the storm. Huge losses and the high death toll in Puerto Rico alone left many heartbroken family members in the midst of despair and a country in a humanitarian crisis.


This destruction hits close to home for Graceland University Assistant Professor of Spanish and Puerto Rican native Jonathan Montalvo, PhD. For months following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he was unable to communicate with his family.


“Diana Jones (director of the Intercultural Office) had this great idea – to get all Puerto Rican students at Graceland together to talk about how they were dealing with the aftermath,” remembered Montalvo.


In discussion with the students, Montalvo discovered they each came to the same conclusion – the difficulty of not knowing the needs their loved ones faced and the helplessness they felt in how little they were able to do for them. Then, in December, Montalvo had the opportunity to visit the island. On his trip, he discovered that his grandmother and many other family members, friends and neighbors had lost their homes.


Ahead of his visit, Montalvo had discovered #TeachingInTheDarkForPuertoRico, a movement unwittingly started by his personal friend and colleague Dr. Manuel Aviles-Santiago. Aviles-Santiago is an associate professor of communication and culture at Arizona State University who is also a Puerto Rican native. In the aftereffects of the hurricane, he too was unable to reach his family.


After researching the effects of the hurricane and learning of so many people without electricity and how children had gone back to school in the dark, Aviles-Santiago decided he would teach his own class in the dark. (Read more about Dr. Manuel Aviles-Santiago’s story and movement, #TeachingInTheDarkForPuertoRico.) When Montalvo saw his friend’s post on Facebook about his experiment, he decided on an experiment of his own.


“I taught all my Spanish classes in the dark and without technology,” shared Montalvo. “For language courses, this could be challenging given that technology often facilitates language instruction through images, audio and video. In my basic Spanish course, I asked my students to depict vocabulary words on index cards. Toward the end of class, I encouraged them to reflect on the experience. Many agreed that it was very time consuming (for a 50-minute class), making language learning less efficient (compared to using technology). Also, it was not the most comfortable setting. The latter was precisely what I wanted them to feel in order to empathize with those Puerto Rican students who were affected by the hurricane.”


When Montalvo is asked what could help rebuild the lives of the people of Puerto Rico, he says to visit the island – spend money in local businesses, volunteer time and talents with local nonprofit organizations. Over the summer, he put his money where his mouth is and took a small group of students to his island home to learn about culture and do some service-learning as part of an experiential-learning course. As of June 2018, there were still thousands of homes and businesses operating without electricity.


Dr. Montalvo wrote about Graceland’s Puerto Rican students and about his experience in an article published in La Respuesto.


Graceland sophomore Kennedy Warner shared her experience during the #TeachingInTheDarkForPuertoRico experiment, “Doing that activity in the dark and knowing that I only have to experience this for one class while others had to experience it for months made me feel helpless. It really opened my eyes to how fortunate we are and how we often take things for granted. I wish there was more that I could do to help.”



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