After Stony Brook University told its campus residents to pack their belongings and move out, about 50 international students were left in a state of panic thinking they might end up homeless amid a pandemic, a graduate student leader said.
“It created a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety for these people who were told you have a few days to find a place to live,” said José Moscoso Núñez, an international doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant in the ecology and evolution department.
The university on March 17 issued a notice to students to return from spring break, remove their belongings and vacate the residence halls within two to three days. University officials wanted to reduce the population density on campus to limit the spread of the coronavirus and make facilities available for use as a temporary hospital.
“I’m happy that Stony Brook is serving as a hub for Long island, but it cannot be at the cost of students going homeless,” Moscoso Núñez said. “In this moment of crisis, they were being told, 'You need to leave your residence.' ”
The move-out order said exceptions would be granted to research, teaching and graduate assistants, and those with “extenuating circumstances,” who would have to apply and get approval.
But criteria for the approval process was not immediately clear, Moscoso Núñez said.
“We at the Graduate Student Organization assumed that we were going to receive blanket exceptions for international students and graduate student employees on campus,” said Moscoso Núñez, secretary of the organization that advocates for graduate students.
Out of the total population of 10,500 students, the school received 2,500 initial resident requests to remain living on campus, said Rick Gatteau, student affairs vice president and dean of students, in an email. About 2,200 requests were approved and as of last week, 1,700 students remained living on campus, Gatteau said.
Approvals were given to international students who had permanent addresses outside of the country and who were unable to fly home due to travel restrictions or unavailable flights, he said.
Many international students, however, used their undergraduate address when applying to graduate studies, which led officials to believe they resided within the country and could find another place to live off campus, Moscoso Núñez said.
“I don’t think the university had any ill will,” he said. “More often than not, university administration is just unaware at times of what’s going on and that people are going through these hardships.”
Moscoso Núñez said he started with a list of 50 students who were in need of housing as a result of denials to stay on campus. Through the advocacy of GSO, all 50 students were able to remain on campus by March 22, five days after the initial notice came out, he said.
"We are not aware of any cases, given that we have responded to any initially denied students," Gatteau said days later. "If we were able to confirm that the student, in fact, did not have another viable living option, we approved their request."
Moscoso Núñez worries there might be more students in need of housing who may have fled to a friend’s or colleague’s residence that may not be stable.
“If any student from Stony Brook University needs assistance, they can contact us at GSO and we can locate resources for them,” he said. “From the bottom of my heart, I just could not see a graduate student be put out on the street during a time like this.”