Surviving Irma

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EMBA alumna reflects on rebuilding a university

With Hurricane Irma forecast to make landfall on St. Martin in just three days, Tiffany Ciolek, EMBA ’16, left her Miami office on Sept. 4, 2017, to board a plane headed for the island.

Ciolek is vice president of enrollment and marketing at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). The university is based in Cupecoy, St. Martin, and a group of new students had already arrived for orientation that week.

“Being from Buffalo, I’d never experienced a hurricane before,” says Ciolek. “Some of the students had lived through Harvey, others had just left home for the first time. I went to help them cope.”

AUC had recently constructed a new building held to withstand a category five hurricane — a storm with winds at or greater than 155 miles per hour. The building became a main point of refuge on the island, with up to 700 parents and students taking shelter there.

Irma was initially forecast to pass to the north of St. Martin, but instead, the eye of the storm made direct impact with the island. AUC’s new building kept everyone safe inside, but once the storm had passed they went out and saw the complete devastation on the rest of the island.

“We realized just how fortunate we were,” says Ciolek. “It was inspiring to watch our students, some on just the third day of orientation, live out their personal statements to help those who weren’t as fortunate as we were.”

Ciolek found herself with one of few working cell phones, so she became the public information officer in the days following Irma. She used her phone to help coordinate evacuation with her parent company, Adtalem Global Education, by hand writing manifests on paper, taking a photo and sending via text message.

“One of the many things I learned through the Executive MBA program is that it’s so important to build relationships and learn to negotiate — I used a relationship I had built with the Department of Tourism to help get the landing permit we needed for evacuation.”

The emotional intelligence course she took during the EMBA program also taught Ciolek that she needed to take time for herself so she could remain calm and positive.

“I learned a lot about myself and my own triggers, so it helped me keep an eye on the things that may set me off,” she says. “I was only getting one to two hours of sleep at night and I knew that I need to have some alone time, so I would find 30 minutes a day to regroup so I could step back out and do what I needed to do.”

With a decimated airport and choppy water from the rapidly approaching hurricane Jose, evacuation from the island was delayed for a few days. But by Monday, Ciolek was on a flight back home.

Since then, she has been assisting in the recovery effort to bring AUC back online and get students back to class. She spent the fall taking any available flight or boat back to the island — one time on a speedboat contracted for FedEx shipments, another on a five-seater plane that had been used by CNN — to help the Red Cross, USAID, Dutch military and private security with recovery efforts. During the fall semester, the medical school held classes on the campus of the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, United Kingdom.

By January, just four months after Irma hit, students had returned and classes resumed at the AUC campus on St. Martin. First, second and third semester students will be based on the island, while fourth and fifth semester students will continue their studies in the UK, taught by AUC faculty.

Throughout the semester, AUC students and colleagues will mobilize to help the country rebuild. In February, the medical school will host Community Action Day, a day dedicated to volunteer work throughout the island. Students will also continue their work on public health, health education and other programs to benefit the people of St. Martin.

“Seeing so many acts of heroism and everyone looking out for each other is something I will never forget,” says Ciolek. “You like to think you know how you’ll react, but you can’t plan for something like this.

“But going through an intense program like the EMBA program makes you a different person. It teaches you how to think, prioritize and become a leader. I was able to think critically, problem solve and use the life skills I gained to get through this and help get us back up and running.”