In Spring 2021, sensing that pandemic-fueled international travel restrictions were not going away anytime soon, Professor Emeritus Scott Jiusto and Associate Professor Gbetonmasse Somasse began looking for an alternative travel experience for students scheduled to head to the Cape Town, South Africa, Project Center they co-direct. They weren’t alone. Many global project center directors were faced with the same conundrum, recognizing that—for many students—leaving campus and traveling abroad are essential parts of the distinctive Interactive Qualifying Project experience.
They considered all domestic alternatives and were intrigued by the Puerto Rico Project Center (PRPC), a well-established center that has hosted groups of WPI students for more than 30 years.
“The Puerto Rico Project Center offered an opportunity for a cross-cultural experience and to do the same kind of community-engaged work we do in South Africa,” says Jiusto. He approached Assistant Teaching Professor John-Michael Davis, in his first year as the PRPC director, who jumped at the chance to collaborate and learn from the more experienced Jiusto.
The team worked with Kent Rissmiller and the Global Experience Office to ensure travel to Puerto Rico was even possible. Then in June 2021, Jiusto and Davis, now co-directors of PRPC, headed to the U.S. territory to meet with local nonprofit groups to identify 11 or 12 new projects for displaced students, including some who were also being redirected from the Albania Project Center.
“Many were new sponsors because we knew the regular cycle of Puerto Rico students come in D-Term and we didn’t want to overwhelm those sponsors by asking them to do it twice,” says Jiusto. They met with many small, grassroots organizations that were working on similar themes: resilience in the face of environmental disasters brought on by climate change; and repurposing of the hundreds of abandoned schools throughout the island, buildings closed due to residents migrating to mainland United States, government austerity measures, or occasional corruption.
“These schools were shut down in a very top-down manner with little community engagement. Some are being sold to developers, but it’s causing all sorts of access problems,” says Davis. “It’s really inspiring to see all these small organizations pull together to reclaim schools that have been in their communities, in some cases over 100 years.”