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LI college students, their campus lives disrupted, struggle to adjust

Wake Forest junior Miles Middleton talks about having to return early from a study abroad program as a result of increased safety measure due to the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

The coronavirus has upended college life for thousands of Long Island students who are suddenly jobless, worried about their financial futures and uneasy about the disruption to mental health counseling they had on campus.

Moving courses online was just the beginning, it turned out, as colleges began asking students to leave campus and announcing virtual versions of decades-old traditions, including commencement, to limit the spread of the virus.

Despite the good intentions, there were some unintended consequences, college students said.

“Not only was I relying on my job for money, but I had begun to rely on it for food,” said Arianna Ketchakeu, 18, a first-year student at Stony Brook University who was living on campus until last Thursday.

Ketchakeu was forced to quit her job at a calzone eatery off campus after the university gave student residents two days to pack their belongings and empty the residence halls.

The short notice came during spring break and was part of the university’s efforts to lower the number of students on campus as it prepares for an overflow of coronavirus patients at the university hospital. The university also is a state site for drive-thru coronavirus testing.

“Uprooting everything about how I was going to live my life this semester within a matter of two days has been really difficult,” said Ketchakeu, as she waited last week for her mother to drive nearly three hours from their hometown of Holyoke, Massachusetts, to pick her up.

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Another student resident at Stony Brook, Cristina Bergara, 21, also left her job as a campus dining hall worker after moving out of her dorm and back home with her mother in Ossining, a village in Westchester County.

“I’ve been trying to find a job now that I'm home because I still need an income, but everything is going up in smoke. There are no jobs,” said Bergara, a psychology major.

Colleges and universities have begun offering prorated refunds or credits for housing fees and meal plans, as well as other on-campus fees, which can help ease the financial strain students are facing.

“We recognize that this is a very difficult time,” Stony Brook said in a statement Monday, urging those with “critical financial needs” to contact the financial aid office as a timeline for the refunds had not yet been determined.

Needs for therapy, counseling persist

Some students said they’re also losing out on weekly therapy sessions with counselors on campus, in both group and one-on-one formats. In some instances, counselors have told students they can offer telecounseling. In other cases, students have been told to reach out to a provider close to home.

“It’s like you have a million people trying to find counseling now in their hometowns,” said Nina Cassisi, 20, of East Northport. Cassisi, a junior at Wake Forest University in North Carolina majoring in Spanish and chemistry, said her counselor has offered to help her find a therapist in her area.

“They’re not abandoning us, but I think that they’re looking for external counseling to help alleviate the overwhelming response of students being at home and needing to contact a counselor,” Cassisi said.

Some campuses have transitioned to telecounseling, offering therapy via phone or video conference.

Marisa Bisiani, assistant vice president of student health, wellness and prevention services at Stony Brook, said the school has moved its “Let’s Talk Center” online. “We’ve now done a virtual model where students can actually sign up to have that virtual interaction and they can do that in the comfort of their home, wherever they are,” Bisiani said.

Some SUNY and CUNY campuses will start remote instruction Monday, after giving students extended spring breaks. Private colleges also have moved to online courses, including Hofstra University, which started Monday.

“I feel sad that classes in person ended so unceremoniously and abruptly,” said Ryan Leighton, 21, a senior at Hofstra majoring in political science, geography, public policy and global studies. “I miss being on campus and grabbing a bite to eat, seeing a friend and sitting down and talking, or catching a professor during their office hours.”

Job fairs, grad ceremonies in peril

Leighton said he was given notice last week that the spring job fair was canceled.

“As someone who’s trying to have a job after graduation, especially now with the way the economic climate is looking, the job fair is a huge loss,” Leighton said. “I also have to get used to the fact that I might not even walk at graduation.”

Hofstra did not finalize a decision on canceling or postponing commencement or holding a virtual ceremony as of Wednesday. For Deandra Denton, 21, a senior at Hofstra studying sociology and public policy, it’s the “biggest thing” she’s been looking forward to with her friends and family, she said.

“You dream of senior year since you’re a freshman, and the graduation ceremony is the icing on the cake. To have that taken away from us, it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Denton said. “Some of us won’t get to see some of our friends again for a long time, friends who live on different coasts or who live abroad. It’s sad.”

Though there’s a lot to juggle as remote courses ramp up, some college students see their return home as a chance to reach out to their neighbors and offer a hand.

“I want to do as much as possible for my community to let them know that there are people who are going to be home and can help,” said Miles Middleton, 20, a junior at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who recently moved back home to Amityville. “I know as college students, we have a lot of work to do, but we should really be reaching out to our communities.”

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