By the end of March 2020, the response to the COVID-19 global pandemic culminated in over 100 countries worldwide instituting full or partial lockdowns, affecting billions of people. As students, parents, employees, businesses and others scrambled to adjust to new restrictions, the range of the impact on different groups became apparent. Representative of this were college campuses and the distinction among students. A majority of Rutgers in-state students returned to their families’ homes in New Jersey, while out-of-state students had to arrange returning to various parts of the country. International students faced the most challenges, as some were unable to return home, others lost funding, and many were not able to work due to visa restrictions and decreased opportunities. Additionally, heightened levels of racism related to the virus left many international students feeling unwelcome and concerned for their safety.
The Office of International Programs (OIP) of the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) ran a survey at the end of May to hear directly from SEBS international students about their needs. Once the survey results were in, it was clear that the students required more assistance than initially realized. Their top concerns were food insecurity, rent assistance and a lack of basic sanitary or personal care supplies.
Throughout the end of the spring semester and into the summer, OIP continued to work with the international student community to provide resources and support throughout the pandemic. Through these efforts, the OIP team and members of the Rutgers community were able to assist international scholars who could not get home obtain visa extensions and connect students who had lost funding to financial resources offered by the university. But the work did not stop there.
At the end of the spring semester an email was sent to SEBS faculty and staff asking for donations and contributions. There was an immediate response—faculty, staff and students reached out for a way to help. Nrupali Patel, teaching instructor in the Department of Plant Biology connected OIP to partner with the Gayatri Chetna Center of Piscataway, and along with SEBS faculty and staff, the Food Science Undergraduate Club, and Rutgers Global, OIP provided care packages that were hand-delivered to students who responded to the survey. Megan Francis, assistant dean, OIP, commented “The Food Science club reached out to us to ask how they could help before the care package initiative even started. So many students are facing uncertainty right now, so there was really something special in this collaboration. It never ceases to amaze me how much students care about and support each other.”
The generous financial contribution of the Gayatri Chetna Center of Piscataway allowed the OIP to purchase all items requested by students. After one day of gathering and sorting supplies and three days of deliveries in and around the New Brunswick area, the OIP was able to hand deliver care packages to 60 students in need. Each care package contained instant noodles, rice, beans, cans of soup, individually wrapped face masks, hand sanitizer and personal care items. Along with these items, each student received a list of resources detailing where they could go for help during this unprecedented time and handwritten notes of encouragement from fellow students and members of the Rutgers Global International Students and Scholar Services Office. Surplus packages and goods continue to be available in the OIP office for students to obtain during walk-in hours on Tuesdays and Thursday between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
The responses from the students showed how touched they were, as one student expressed her appreciation of the items, “The toilet towel [sic], hand sanitizer and face mask are all helpful because of the panic buying situation. Also, the package of candy reminds me of the fun that we have during the events that host by the department. You are all like the fairy or Santa who magically know what I need.” And while the tangible items were held dear, it was the thoughtful notes included in the packages that showed someone cared. “Thanks a lot for all your working during this volatile period. Thank you for caring about our recent situation.”
While the survey responses shed a light on the loneliness, boredom and isolation the students felt, it also made apparent the discrimination some of them experienced. For Spring 2020 semester, SEBS had 121 undergraduate and 102 graduate international students enrolled. The majority of these students are from India, S. Korea and China. Hyunjin Yeo, program coordinator, OIP commented, “After COVID-19 hit the US, I saw how international students felt unwelcome to be in the U.S., and I wanted to let our international students know that we are here for them and we will keep advocating for them. I do not know how successful we were in conveying this message to all students who received the care packages, but the warm messages we received from students assured me that we are on the right track.”
Francis noted, “I think it is incredibly important to recognize that international students are also finding it difficult to make ends meet during this crisis. Some have lost their funding, there have been job losses, and some students have lost family members to COVID. This virus does not discriminate, and it hit many of our international students and their families before it hit the United States.” She added, “Our care packages did not solve these issues. Rather, they provided a sense of empathy for our students and let them know that there is a support system for them while they are here and far away from home. It is not a lot, and there is still more to be done. But it is at least a start.”
For SEBS international students in need they can reach out to the OIP at 848-932-3333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For those that would like to assist in the OIP’s ongoing effort to help the international students in the SEBS community, please consider donating to the International Programs Gift Account.