Supplies such as solar lamps, water, food, towels and toiletries were distributed in the community of Recio Alto in Patillas, Puerto Rico. All photos are courtesy of Jonathan Reyes-Colon, pictured here.

Additional supplies were donated to the Department of the Family at its regional office in Guayama, PR.

Walking through Recio Alto in Patillas, PR.

An insurance seminar at University of Puerto Rico's Law School.

In late January of this year, I met Mr. Rivera, a humble and soft-spoken man, during one of the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic brigades in Loiza, Puerto Rico. My fellow law school students and I had the opportunity to help our local partners provide legal services to one of many devastated communities.

Like many others, Mr. Rivera’s house was severely damaged. Part of his roof had collapsed, exposing his property to rainfall and damaging the interior of his house. When Mr. Rivera walked into our temporary office, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless, he stood by the entrance, perhaps too intimidated to approach anyone or ask for help. I went over, greeted Mr. Rivera and asked him how I could be of help.

This humble and unpretentious man had not yet been able to find a reliable computer to file his FEMA claim, and he was very unsure of the steps he had to take. Right away, I felt compelled to help and that I owed a duty to Mr. Rivera—a feeling that I have only begun to understand.

I sat next to Mr. Rivera with my laptop and began to file his claim. As we went through the steps, I took every opportunity I could to explain to him what I was doing, his rights throughout—and beyond—the process and what was being asked of him. I thought the biggest help I could give Mr. Rivera was not simply to file a claim on his behalf but to empower him with the knowledge and understanding that would make him feel involved in the process and hopefully give him the necessary tools for the future.

But the joy of my encounter with Mr. Rivera came not from what I think I may have given or done for him but from what he gave me: a simple but powerful smile, a genuine expression of gratitude and a firm handshake that momentarily made me forget how humble and intimidated he had seemed when he first walked in.

As a Puerto Rican, I have always been aware of and familiar with the deep cultural and historical issues that define the experience and reality of what it truly means to have been born in Puerto Rico. Two years ago, I left my home, my family and friends and the life I had in Puerto Rico and traveled to Buffalo, New York, with the goal of becoming a lawyer and honing skills that would one day pave my return to the country to which I owe my life.

It may seem an overstatement to some, but to me, 24 years of my ongoing reality, and the circumstances faced by the people of Puerto Rico have instilled in me an inescapable sense of duty. However, this duty had only existed in the abstract, informing my professional goals and personal interests for the future but never truly forming part of my law school experience. That was until I returned, awakening that sense of duty and presenting me with experiences that reminded me of why I had left Puerto Rico in the first place.

In early January, while on break from law school and visiting my family in Puerto Rico and after being absent when Hurricane Maria hit the islands, I found out about my school’s new Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic and the opportunity to return back home and do meaningful work. I immediately applied. At the time, I did not fully understand my motivations to apply.

But the feelings and emotions behind that decision became clearer by the time I returned from what turned out to be a life-changing and self-defining trip to Puerto Rico. Currently in my second year of law school, my time has been filled with difficult challenges and many opportunities that have shaped the beginning of my career, and more importantly, have defined me as an individual. However, the most revealing experience so far did not occur in Buffalo but back home in Puerto Rico when I returned, not as a local, but as a student attorney.

After a short return to Buffalo for three weeks of training and briefing with the clinic, I traveled back to Puerto Rico a week before my colleagues, in part, to help in preparations for their arrival and establish contacts with our local partners.

Since that day when I helped Mr. Rivera, I have felt a perdurable sense of purpose and determination. Without trying, Mr. Rivera brought to mind the values that had driven me to study law and reminded me to never lose sight of what is truly important in my life.

Forget the paychecks, the titles and positions and all the perks that come with being a lawyer. The true value of what I have chosen to be—and the significance of a career that is dedicated to serving others—lies in small but powerful moments such as the half-hour I spent with Mr. Rivera. It is quite possible I will never see Mr. Rivera again, but I will not soon forget the significance of our brief encounter.

As I reflect back on the work I have done in this clinic, I realize it could not have come at a better time. My life had been split in two when I began law school many miles away from my home. I was part of two very different worlds; two worlds that together defined my life.

My old life in Puerto Rico, where I grew up, where my family and friends live, had little, if anything, to do with my new life in Buffalo. Puerto Rico was my childhood and my past, while Buffalo seemed like the beginning of adulthood and my professional career. But the work I have done in this clinic, every client I served during my time in Puerto Rico and those moments that brought to mind the inexorable duty I owe to my country, have reminded me that these two worlds, as distant and different as they may be, have everything to do with each other in my life.

The very reason why I left Puerto Rico to study law—to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to be able to advocate for the people of my country—is why these two worlds have become inseparable in my life. As I slowly begin to understand the implications and significance of this, my reality, it has become apparent that Puerto Rico and people like Mr. Rivera and others that I have met are my past, present and future. Inasmuch as I feel bound by a duty to my country, I am confident that the education I have sought and my experiences as a Puerto Rican law student will eventually lead me home.

Jonathan Reyes-Colon is a second year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law and a participant in the law school’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, a clinical program established to respond to the critical need for legal services in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.