When the coronavirus forced colleges and universities across the country to close their campuses, most students returned to the safety of their homes. But what happens when a student, for one reason or another, can’t return home?
At Niagara University, approximately 20 young men and women, most of them international students, have remained on Monteagle Ridge since March. Like their peers, they are completing their classes remotely. Unlike the other students, however, they are doing so from one of three residence halls on campus. Once each day, they walk to the Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons to pick up two packaged meals –brunch and dinner—specially prepared to meet their dietary requirements. Campus Safety personnel check on their welfare, and staff from the offices of International Relations and Residence Life check on them regularly to offer support with both academic challenges and personal issues.
“Throughout the various stages of change that profoundly affected the university and residential living in response to COVID-19, we knew that some students would rely on campus housing as a safe harbor,” said Christopher Sheffield, associate vice president for Student Affairs and Institutional Effectiveness. “Each step along the way, from initially extending the spring break period while students were largely away from campus, to making the decision to keep the halls closed following movement to remote instruction, opportunity was provided for students to remain in residence or return to campus if they had an individual need.”
To provide support for remaining resident students while upholding the letter and spirit of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders on workforce reductions, closures, and social distancing, a number of creative solutions were implemented. These included: consolidating the remaining students to three halls to maintain appropriate distancing and help prevent feelings of physical and emotional isolation in largely vacant buildings; providing two daily meals on a takeout basis; maintaining an on-site presence for essential support services such as Residence Life, Health Services, and Counseling Services; providing 24-hour access to speak with a nurse practitioner or RN; continuing access to the Gallagher Center, a computer lab, and the new Nest Lounge in O’Shea Hall for study, relaxation, and distraction; offering shuttle service, structured to keep capacity limited, so students can pick up essential items from the grocery store or pharmacy; and providing online opportunities for connection and involvement with the Kiernan Recreation Center and the offices of Campus Activities, Multicultural Affairs, International Relations, IMPACT, and Campus Ministry.
Khin “Shabnam” Myat, a junior majoring in biochemistry, is one of the students who remained on Monteagle Ridge when international flights to her home country of Myanmar were cancelled. While she is experiencing homesickness, she is able to talk to her family every day and is grateful for the shelter and food she is being provided on campus.
“The university is wonderful at helping me make things easier,” she said. “The dining hall is serving great halal food for me, as I am Muslim. The fact that the school lets me stay on campus is very helpful. I appreciate how everyone is willing to help here.”
Undergraduate Linh Nguyen, a psychology major from Vietnam who is immunocompromised, chose to remain on campus because it is a safe and isolated environment, he said. As a student worker in the Brennan Center, he is also able to help his peers during this difficult time.
“We try to have small gatherings in the lounge during dinner to make sure each and every one of us is doing well,” he said. “Sometimes, I would join them for a walk or host a movie night during the weekends. As an employee at the Brennan Center, I do my part in helping students move out of campus and making sure the process goes smoothly. Staying here has given me the chance to help people that are in need, which makes me very happy in these hard times.”
Because the majority of students who remain on campus are international, Niagara University’s Office of International Relations has had a prominent role in supporting them. Dr. Deborah Curtis, vice president of International Relations and the Brennan Center, noted that each member of her team has been assigned a group of students, both on and off campus, whom they regularly contact to make sure they are doing well and have what they need. The office has also cross-promoted programs with other campus offices and created special opportunities to help the students remain connected with one another, such as sharing recipes from home and Zoom happy hours. Dr. Curtis is also exploring scholarships and other funding options to assist students who are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.
One of the most appreciated gestures was the Easter baskets Dr. Curtis made for the students. She left one at each building, containing typical holiday fare, as well as face masks that were provided by another student who, upon return to her home in China, wanted to ensure the safety of those still at Niagara by sending 200 face masks both for the students and for the staff in Campus Safety and Health Services.
“The Easter gift basket was a heartfelt surprise to all of us,” said Nguyen .
Dr. Curtis also organized activities to observe Ramadan.
“It’s the little things we can do that make a difference to these students,” she said.
“When I was given the choice to stay, I felt that going back to my country during the height of COVID-19 would be irresponsible to my homeland,” said Nguyen. “Without a doubt, I am very lucky to have a roof over my head and food on the table every day, thanks to the university. I am very grateful for Residence Life to be the few who are allowed to stay on campus.”