WILLIAMSPORT – “International students including myself never budgeted for a summer on campus.”
Those few words of Nidhee Seernaum concisely sum up his current plight and that of 27 foreign counterparts who find themselves still on campus at Lycoming College in Williamsport.
Due to circumstances beyond their control, the so-called “stranded students” at Lycoming began to suffer a somewhat lesser-known symptom brought on by the COVID-19 health crisis – hunger.
The global pandemic delivered a “gut punch” to the 28 international students when they realized they could not just simply “go home” like their fellow collegians, as the coronavirus spread with a vengeance forcing the long-term closure of colleges and universities around the country.
International travel restrictions forced the foreign students to remain in the middle of Pennsylvania, including Seernaum, a native of the tiny island nation of Mauritius, situated off the west coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Lycoming College responded to housing needs free of charge for their “stranded students,” but when the school’s cafeteria service closed on June 1 a stomach-churning reality set in. Most campus jobs had not reopened yet and spending money for students became harder to come by. A food pantry was reactivated in the Academic Center’s Student Hub, but could not fully cater to the students’ dietary needs, including strict guidelines followed by those who practice the Muslim faith.
Fortunately, the crisis came to the attention of Father Bill Corcoran, pastor of nearby Saint Boniface Parish who also serves as the college’s chaplain. The students’ dire situation hit home with Father Corcoran, who knows full well about being a foreigner in a foreign land. For three years during the early 1990s, the priest served in a Vatican appointment as regional director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine based in Amman, Jordan.
“I heard of the ‘stranded students’ through a professor of biology who is a parishioner (of mine),” Father Corcoran said. “I was shocked to hear that students were still living on campus, unable to go home. The school had nicely given them rooms and stretched the cafeteria closing date, but their conditions were rough.”
As Father explained, the college was supplying basic food stuffs through a pantry; however, the students were still struggling.
That’s when the parishioners of Saint Boniface came to the rescue. After speaking with Lycoming Dean of Students Dan Miller, Father Corcoran arranged for the church to donate a $100 Wegmans gift card to each of the 28 students. “The cards seemed ideal,” he said, “because each student then had the dignity of choosing his or her style of food.”
Extolling the compassion of his flock, Father Corcoran continued, “I was thrilled with our parish’s interest, though many were surprised that so many foreign students live in Williamsport. They were very interested in their backgrounds and couldn’t imagine the loneliness and boredom the students were facing.”
Not surprisingly, the students’ grateful reaction has been palpable.
“As a stranded student on campus away from home and family, this gift card didn’t only help me financially, but it also faded the feeling of alienation and loneliness I had,” said Aseel Tork, a political science major from Palestine. “It opened my eyes to a great community we have here in Williamsport.”
The Lycoming co-ed related how the generosity brought the students closer together as they used the gift cards to buy groceries and cook each other cuisines from around the world. “This made our summer nights glorious,” she said.
Seernaum’s fellow countryman from Mauritius, Vishesh Ram, a chemistry major at Lycoming, said, “The Wegmans card came as a blessing, given that work was scarce and we needed groceries. Thank you!”
Father Corcoran and his caring parishioners aren’t quite done yet. This Sunday, July 19, Saint Boniface will host a barbecue outing for the students on the church grounds, complete with a multitude of picnic foods.
“Most of the students’ families are not even of middle-class means, which is why several of the students needed scholarships to attend college,” Father Corcoran added. “Many come from countries severely hit by COVID, and some have had their family bank accounts frozen.”
He also related that these international students lost a great deal of money when they were able to begin their sojourns back to their native lands, only to have to return to America when they encountered further travel bans along the way.
“We will be forever grateful to Saint Boniface Church for this act of kindness,” Seernaum offered. “I felt supported and less lonely during such a chaotic moment away from home. I was able to buy nutritious food to get me through the break, instead of going for cheaper products to make ends meet.”