International students find virtual home at SUNY New Paltz during pandemic

Everything seemed to change over the span of just two weeks for SUNY New Paltz international student Gabriela Martins ’21 (Business).

When the pandemic moved classes online and encouraged students to vacate residence halls, Martins wondered where she would choose to live and if she would return to class.

“It seemed like something major would happen every day and the anxiety of not being home and not knowing if I would even be able to get there was the worst part,” said Martins.

Martins’ home is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but she has studied and lived at SUNY New Paltz for the last 18 months. She is one of many international students at the College who found themselves making tough decisions under tight deadlines: Where would they decide to live? How would they get there? And how could they keep their families safe if they returned home?

When the spring 2020 semester began, the College was host to 270 international students from 32 countries, including many who lived on campus. After the College’s extended spring break, students with special circumstances, including international students, were given the option to return to live on campus.

As of April, only 18 international students remained in residence halls, with about 100 more living off campus in the Village of New Paltz.

Some international students were able to make travel plans in time to return home, though still saddened to give up their lives and networks in the Hudson Valley. Many others worked to find new local housing options, with support from the College’s Center for International Programs.

“COVID-19 really changed my experience as an international student studying in America,” said Ruby Do ’20 (Visual Arts) of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “When New Paltz moved classes online, I moved out of my dorm, too. I never thought I would leave campus so quickly. Everything was very overwhelming for everyone at that moment.”

As students and faculty settled into the rhythm of remote teaching and learning, International Student Services staff continued to find new ways to keep students engaged.

The Virtual Events page showcases a number of ongoing online meet-ups, including a weekly coffee hour that welcomed President Christian on April 17. The page also provides important links to various virtual activities and useful informational workshops.

The Center for International Programs hosted a virtual coffee hour for international students on Friday, April 17, 2020, with special guests President Donald P. Christian, Dean Kristin Backhaus of the School of Business, and Dean Dan Freedman of the School of Science & Engineering.

International students who planned to graduate in May 2020 are now faced with new questions about the future. Some will choose to stay in the United States for graduate school, either at New Paltz or other universities.

Many others plan to stay and gain work experience through the Optional Practical Training program, which allows students to accept paid or unpaid internships or any work related to the field of study or major just completed. This enables recent graduates to gain valuable professional experience in the U.S., while earning wages that help offset the cost of their education.

“The College’s Career Resource Center is helping these international students – and all New Paltz students – navigate this process through its virtual resources,” said Executive Director of the Center for International Programs Beth Vargas.

Ruby Do chose to stay in the United States and explore what opportunities are available after earning her degree. “I hope I will be able to get some work experiences in America before moving back home,” she said.

As the semester draws to a close amid ongoing uncertainty, Martins still chooses to look fondly on her New Paltz experience.

“I was sad to know I would not see my professors and peers in person anymore, but I understood that it was all needed for our safety,” she said. “Professors were very understanding of my unique situation of being out of the country and asked many times if all was well and if I needed any help. It made me feel warm and cared for – and that is something very important for all of us during this troubled time.”

View the latest information and updates regarding the campus response to COVID-19 (coronavirus).