Brenau Voices: Paola Benitez-Hernandez

Dec. 2, 2021
Kelsey Podo

Meet Paola, senior from Puerto Rico who is carving a path for other international students 

Before starting her first year at Brenau University, Paola Benitez-Hernandez faced one of the most devastating events of her life — Hurricane Maria. 

The violent storm swept through the northeastern Caribbean in September 2017, including Benitez-Hernandez’s home island of Puerto Rico, causing mass power outages, building destruction and the death of many.

The hurricane hit as Benitez-Hernandez entered her senior year of high school. She was forced to live without access to water for two months and power for four months. 

“The hurricane took everything for a lot of people,” she said. “There were people that lost their homes. We lost two elderly people as a community.”

Benitez-Hernandez said living without a connection to the outer world was “terrifying,” and a portion of her neighborhood, including her family, teamed up to share resources.

“We didn’t have a signal for anything,” she recounted. “We didn’t have internet. We didn’t have data. We didn’t have anything. It was really a stressful time because I was considering maybe graduating somewhere else in high school.”

Benitez-Hernandez returned to high school — even though the building didn’t have electricity or water —  and attended classes on a half-day schedule. She said some of her friends moved to the U.S. mid-semester to complete their senior year.

“By November, almost December, all my classmates and I wanted to graduate,” she said. “It’s not that we weren’t doing anything, but we weren’t proactive. We were at a plateau. We were just doing what we could within all our situations.”

Driving periodically to a facility that had power and internet, Benitez-Hernandez applied to schools throughout the U.S. with physical therapy programs. She said Brenau’s Doctor of Physical Therapy degree drew her to becoming a Golden Tiger. 

Today, Benitez-Hernandez is a senior exercise science student, a resident advisor for Brenau’s Panamanian cohort and a cross country and track athlete. She is attending on the Trustees Scholarship and Romberg Scholarship, and currently works for Lanier Therapy in Motion, a local physical therapy clinic. 

The day she arrived at the Gainesville campus, Benitez-Hernandez said what struck her the most wasn’t the difference of culture, but the stillness of the night. In Puerto Rico, she said the darkness is filled with continuous noises, mostly the sound of coquí frogs.

“I grew up in an area with a lot of shots being fired and bad things occurring that you could hear at night,” she said. “There was always something signifying that there was life here. There was always someone playing music or roaring their cars. It was just really quiet here (Gainesville).”

Benitez-Hernandez said she didn’t have much trouble with the shift from Spanish to English because she grew up watching American cartoons and learning English from her father. However, she said thinking in English and translating biological terms proved a challenge. But, just as she had done the year prior, she adapted. 

Benitez-Hernandez is now using her skills and knowledge gained over the past three years to guide Brenau’s Panamanian students as they acclimate to life in Gainesville. 

“It’s honestly very exciting and heartwarming because I get to relate to these students and help them,” she said. “It’s just a different feeling because I understand where they’re coming from. I understand that they’re coming to another country and adapting to another culture.”

Benitez-Hernandez said she is interested in pursuing a physical therapy doctorate route, but intends to take a year off after graduation to recenter herself.  Wherever her choices lead her, the senior said she is grateful for her time at Brenau.

“What makes this school special to me is the community that I’ve gained through it,” she said. “The people that I’ve met have made it worthwhile, and the continuous support of the community as well.”