Stranded international students find community at St. Boniface

Vy (Thu) Ha, left, Aseel Tork, center left, and Vishesh Ram, center right, stand with Father Bill Corcoran chaplain of St. Boniface Catholic Church and a former priest in the Middle East. ANNE REINER/OnthePULSE

For most Lycoming College students, the promise of summer break looked particularly sweet this year. After dealing with the unexpected challenges of finishing spring semester through virtual learning in the face of COVID-19, going home to enjoy time off from school would offer at least a semblance of normal life. Unfortunately, for the 28 international students stranded on Lycoming’s campus for the summer, normalcy still is a long way off; across the globe, to be exact. Affording enough food has been one of the most difficult challenges they’ve faced in this forced quarantine. 

“When the cafeteria closed, that’s when it hit me,” said Vishesh Ram, a junior chemistry major from Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean. “I was like, ‘Do I have enough savings to buy groceries the whole summer if need be?’ (Mauritius) was on lockdown, so my parents didn’t have access to the bank to transfer money. . . I was kind of on my own. And that’s when I was very worried.”

The college allowed the students to reside in single rooms at Wesley Hall free of charge, but cafeteria service closed on June 1. Most campus jobs had not reopened at that point, so money for many students was tight. A food pantry was reactivated in the Academic Center’s Student Hub but could not fully cover the students’ dietary needs.

‘Away from home’

When Father Bill Corcoran, chaplain of St. Boniface Catholic Church and a former priest in the Middle East, learned of the situation from a college faculty member and parishioner, he immediately wanted to help.

“When I had worked in the Middle East, I was always very conscious of living in a country where it’s not your first language (being spoken),” Corcoran said. “I’ve been in a place where you don’t have family and experienced the loneliness that can happen when you’re (living) away from home.”

After speaking with Dean of Students Dan Miller, Corcoran arranged for the church to give each of the 28 students a $100 gift card for Wegmans. He chose gift cards not only so the students would be able to pick their own groceries but also to give a gift that felt warmer than cash. 

“Money’s cold; it’s rather impersonal,” he explained to the three students next to him.  “So to give you that card was practical and yet you’d have the dignity of being able to choose what you want.”

Vy (Thu) Ha, a junior commercial design major from Vietnam, was particularly touched by the gesture. In a time plagued by fear and uncertainty, she is grateful to feel cared for by the Williamsport community. “I am just so happy because there are people outside (campus) who see us, who know our condition and are willing to help.”

Aseel Tork, a junior political science and economics major from Palestine, was quick to agree. “It’s not only us (you’re helping),” she said to Corcoran. “Our families feel better right now because they know we are in a safe place with safe people, people who are nice to us. So thank you so much.” .

Fellowship through food 

In addition to the grocery help, Corcoran has arranged for St. Boniface to host an outdoor barbeque for the students at 1 p.m. on July 19. He is asking parishioners to work the event and to donate food and supplies. Because some of the students are Muslim, he has asked for all of the food to be Halal in accordance with their dietary code, which means no pork products. He is looking forward to the barbeque, not only because it will be fun for the students but also because it will serve as education for his parishioners.

“I don’t want them to just think that they can go and pray and think that’s enough. They have to do things,” he said. “Our people need to meet more students, especially more international students…  So, it’s good education. It broadens the world of the people here.”

Back on campus

Meanwhile, Ram,Tork and Ha find comfort in spending their summer with the remaining members of Lycoming’s international student community. Ram and Torkare back to working campus jobs, while Ha is on the lookout for a new position. While they keep in close contact with their families through online video chatting, they also enjoy each other’s company. Doing their best to maintain proper social distance, they eat dinner together most nights. Recently, they started a weekly tradition of preparing a meal from one another’s home countries. This past Sunday, Ha cooked the group sweet chicken ginger from Vietnam — her mother’s recipe. 

All three agree that the most important thing is to keep a positive and patient outlook.

“We’re all in the same boat right now,” Ram said. “We know how it is to be unable to work, but hopefully (the virus) gets done, gets cleared out, and everything’s OK before the next semester starts. So, just be patient.”

“Focus on the good things,” Tork added with a smile.


  • Allison Lax

    Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.

Allison Lax

Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.

  1. Wonderful article Alli, beautiful acts of love for these young students who were in need. God bless them and Fr Bill.

  2. Thanks for this article informing us of these internationals far from home families during this time of isolation.