Almost 50 years ago, my abuela Gloria arrived in Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic in search of better opportunities. The odds were against her – she was black, 24 years-old, alone, and undocumented. She cleaned houses in San Juan, earning $70 a month, while carrying her first child, my dad.
As the oldest sibling, my dad was forced to drop out of middle school to help raise his two brothers and sister, and bring food to the table. He began a vocation repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, a trade which he still does today. When my parents got married, my mother dropped out of college to take care of my two sisters and me. My family’s sacrifices and hard work gave us the opportunity to attend and graduate from parish high schools in San Juan that prepared us for college.
However, because of the current fiscal and economic crisis in Puerto Rico – which has caused an economic recession for the past eight years and the highest unemployment rate in the United States – young people have fewer opportunities to succeed in the global economy than ever before. In Puerto Rico, today’s youth is poor and uneducated.
According to the U.S. Census’ 2012 American Community Survey , 56 percent of Puerto Ricans under 18 live in poverty and 52 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are not enrolled in college. Even those that are graduating from college are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed, overqualified and disinterested in their work, and burdened with debt.
According to Puerto Rico’s Institute on Statistics, just in 2012, about 75,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States, with 52 percent of them having some college education. In surveys at the airport’s departure gates, 60 percent of Puerto Ricans with one-way tickets said they were leaving the island in search of better opportunities.
I left to go to school at American University in Washington, D.C., where I made friends from all over the world. I learned about political science and economics directly from those who shaped the national agenda through their work in government, nonprofits and academia. I got merit- and need-based scholarships, federal and private student loans and worked temporary jobs in retail to afford life in DC, while adjusting to a new language, culture, and environment. (Still can’t get used to the winters!)
I interned for then-U.S. Senator (and now Vice President) Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and worked, through a student program, at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. I still remember my excitement when I called my parents to tell them about my first real job offer, as a special assistant to the Chairman and the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Miguel Columna with Bill Clinton at the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation’s 2014 CGI America Meeting.
Today, as a cofounder and director of non-profit organization ConPRmetidos, my work focuses promoting the island’s economic development while engaging with entrepreneurs, investors, professionals and students in the diaspora. We also work with companies in the island to enhance their social responsibility in the communities they operate in.
Puerto Rico faces an opportunity gap. When it comes to government, we can blame our political party system, centered on a single issue — Puerto Rico’s territorial status — for the lack of adequate policies. As a generation, let me just say, we don’t care about Puerto Rico’s territorial status. We care about educational excellence, jobs, and quality of life. And because our single-issue political party system is not generating favorable conditions for us, we are choosing to leave the island.
When it comes to private and non-governmental sectors, we can also do much better. That is why at ConPRmetidos, which I co-founded with four other friends in 2012, we are launching initiatives that focus on mentoring, internship and hiring programs for young people.
My sisters and I grew up in poverty and became the first generation in our family to graduate from college. Now, we can impact our communities. We are just an example of how the right opportunities can precipitate success. We need those opportunities today to close the opportunity gap in Puerto Rico. To get there, the Puerto Rican government, private and non-governmental leaders must work together on creating better conditions for young people. Otherwise, we will continue to be reduced to statistics in surveys gathered at the airport’s departure gates. Despite our territorial status, political differences and our fiscal and economic crisis, our youth needs its leaders to come together to create an island of opportunities.
Miguel Columna is Co-Founder and Managing Director of ConPRmetidos, a millennials-led non-profit “think-and-do” tank providing innovative solutions to enhance Puerto Rico’s economic development.
Miguel, 25, divides his time between Washington DC and San Juan. He is an Aspen Institute Socrates Scholar and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.