SRU student reconnects with family in hurricane-ravaged British Virgin Islands


A high school in the British Virgin Islands that was ravaged during Hurricane Irma.

Trees had limbs ripped off and windows were blown out of a local high school in the British Virgin Islands during Hurrican Irma.

Sept. 18, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - After recent hurricanes devastated the Caribbean Islands, Florida and southeast Texas, many people waited anxiously to hear from loved ones who were in the path of the storms. For one Slippery Rock University student, her wait extended more than a week before she received any information about her son's whereabouts.

Akelah Hughes, a junior early childhood/special education major, was born and raised in the British Virgin Islands, which was among the hardest hit islands by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that covered the chain of islands with sustained winds exceeding 150 mph on the afternoon of Sept. 6.

She last spoke to her son, Levaughn Smith Jr., 11, by phone the evening of Sept. 5. Levaughn lives with his father, Levaughn Smith Sr., in Tortola, the largest island in the British chain, where news outlets reported that 90 percent of all homes and businesses were destroyed.

A full week went by before Hughes heard from friends and relatives in Tortola on social media, but not her son.

"People have been reaching out to me on Facebook," Hughes said on the afternoon of Sept. 13. "People had seen him and said he was alive. They were not sure where he is staying or the conditions in which he is living, but they did see him with his dad."

Akelah Hughes   

Finally, Sept. 14, after nine days without communication, Hughes received a video call from her son and confirmed that he's "doing fine" but "concerned about schooling and the environment he's in."

"They are trying to get food and shelter," Hughes added. "It's just a bad time."

Hughes, distraught during the week following the storm, found comfort in the SRU community that rallied to support her and her family in Slippery Rock, where she lives with her husband, Willis Hughes, and their two children, daughter Love, 4, and son Liam, 3.

"I spoke with my professors so they knew what was going on with me because the whole week I was a mess," Hughes said. "I couldn't ask for a better support team than the people of the education department. They went beyond just helping me as a student."

While faculty and staff in the education department initially provided Hughes emotional support and assistance with her class work, Hughes, who is a non-U.S. citizen, was connected to SRU's Office of Global Engagement.

"This is the first time I've been in this type of situation so I didn't know the first step to take," Hughes said. "I'm not American and I don't know how to get the help that I need."

The OGE, led by Jenny Kawata, director of global exchanges and partnerships, and Nora Alie, assistant director of international student services, got SRU's Student Success Office involved.

   Levaughn Smith Jr.

"It was a group effort," Kawata said. "There are so many channels on campus that were able to help her, and all of those pieces came together as a whole. It's a great example of teamwork in order to support our students."

The Student Success Office reached out to approximately two dozen SRU students who have home addresses in areas that were affected by the hurricanes. Also, SRU assisted students in less critical circumstances than Hughes', such as a student whose medical records were needed from a facility in Texas and a student whose financial aid was affected because the loan servicing company in Florida was evacuated.

"Referrals come in from a variety of places and we provide possible options and resources," said Karla Fonner, director of student support. "It's often specific to the student's situation. Sort of like a GPS, my job is to give students options and a roadmap by being aware of what's available on campus and in the community that the student can access."'

Fonner made attempts on Hughes' behalf to locate her family through services offered by the American Red Cross, but her family was not registered at any of the shelters.

"When we have a student who is in the middle of a crisis, our instinct is to take care of the student and their state of mind so that they can focus on what needs to be done," Alie said. "Akelah was proactive on her own, reaching out on Facebook groups and trying to communicate with family members back home. (In addition to our resources), we provided a lot of the emotional support for her."

In Hughes' case, there was only so much anyone could do because most of the Virgin Islands was without power and communications, but she was able to find much-needed comfort through the SRU community.

In addition to referrals from faculty and staff, the Student Success Office receives information about students who may be in need of assistance via the University's "Just in Case" app (see related story at: or an online form, which can be completed by a concerned classmate, a parent or self-reported by the student who needs assistance. That form is available at:

Cultural barriers can prevent students from asking for help. Despite coming from a country of what she calls "prideful people," Hughes understood the importance of seeking support. Helping students is why she enrolled at SRU in the early childhood/special education program in fall 2016. She eventually wants to return to the Virgin Islands and help students with learning disabilities after she recognized a need for such in the islands' school system.

"Back home I found an increase in children with learning disabilities and because of our culture, we look at things like that as not important," Hughes said. "(The schools) just consider learning disabilities a behavioral problem and that kids just didn't want to learn, but (students with learning disabilities) can't learn in a traditional setting."

While the overall setting in the Virgin Islands is one of dire needs at the moment, one less need is that of an SRU-based mother longing to hear the voice of her child.

A campus-wide hurricane relief campaign, which runs through Sept. 23 to aid those effected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, is being coordinated by the Student Nonprofit Alliance, an on-campus organization of students preparing for careers in the nonprofit sector, and the Slippery Rock Student Government Association.

Individuals wishing to participate can learn more at:

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |