Dear colleagues,

Are we not overwhelmed and dismayed by the virus-driven narratives of our vulnerability?

Joe Pinsker, in his Atlantic article of April 10, 2020, warns that the “virus is being felt by just about everyone in the United States and all over the world, in one way or another. After the pandemic has run its course, no one will be wholly untouched.”

He also cautions that there will be “stark disparities in how certain segments of the American populations experience the crisis.” Wait, do not assume that what you are now reading is a lecture on the tragic and disproportionate victimization of low-income people by the pandemic. No — this is actually a story of how the virus itself has enabled us to do something good and positive this past week for three homeless students. Indeed, the qualities that these students have displayed — grit, resilience and courage — can be empowering to you in the same way that they inspire us.

Let me offer examples from three currently enrolled hardworking FIU students whom we just found shelter for in our residence halls.

Diosky de la Cruz is a junior majoring in international business. She plans to graduate this coming December. The victim of years of instability and difficulty at home, Diosky admits that “I have been through almost everything that you can think of.” Diosky, who is epileptic, took English classes for two years, found a way through Broward College, then into work at local warehouses, where she labored up to 52 hours a week and still took her FIU classes. As her household situation worsened, she decided to move out and live in her car at her work site. But as the coronavirus closed in, she could no longer rely upon the shower facilities at FIU’s rec center, nor the comfort of the Steven and Dorothea Green Library for her bandwidth and a safe place to study. She lost further contact when she could no longer pay for cell phone bills, which meant that her remote classes were no longer accessible either.

Enter FIU professor Flavio Carrillo. He was alerted by the student about her situation, immediately contacted Dean Jo Li, and mobilized our Fostering Panther Pride team to help.  According to Carrillo, “It’s our duty to care for our students.” 

Naomi Serret, a graduate of Coral Park High School, enrolled at FIU. However, she was “detoured” in a 10-year relationship that turned toxic — ultimately leaving her homeless and living in her car. According to Naomi, she “bounced around,” but with a single-minded determination to finish her major in psychology, publish a book that she is writing, and get a Ph.D. in psychology. Well read, Naomi studies Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. She also reads Harry Potter and Ayn Rand, and loves classic rock music. 

She admits that she is ”starting over,” starting anew. Although she has an interest in an events company, it is shut down as a consequence of the virus. She is clearly motivated to get on with her life. Listen to one of her major professors, Marie Barnes: “Naomi never asked for an extension — she just pushed through. She gets stuff done.” Barnes is confident that Naomi can get that Ph.D.  

Homeless since the beginning of this semester, graduate student Jonathan Espino stayed with friends until the coronavirus made him unwelcome as a “couch surfer.” Family financial difficulties at home elsewhere in the state left him with neither funds nor a residence. Living in his car, the First Generation student “rinsed and repeated,” so he says every day. But when everything started going remote, he found it more difficult to shield his situation from friends and his advisers, including Pamela Castillo, Care Coordinator in the Dean of Students Office who called him every other day just to check in on him. 

No stranger to the university, Jonathan has been a leader in Student Government, a peer mentor and says that this undergraduate stay at FIU was an “amazing experience.” He credits a circle of FIU friends as instrumental to his perseverance and “appreciates the family that I found” at FIU.    

Whether they were couch surfing or sleeping in their cars, these students needed immediate assistant to ensure their health, safety and well-being. Thankfully, at our FIU we are able to provide them housing and other services. Our Fostering Panther Pride program is doing remarkable things for these three students and countless others enrolled at FIU. 
Addressing the needs of our students is priority no. 1. However, as I have pointed out, in this era, with or without COVID-19, we must figure out newer, better and more human-centered ways to meet students where they are, not where we want them to be. 

As Joe Pinsker reminds us, this pandemic will leave a deep scar and wounds to heal. We will do our part — made more effortless thanks to caring faculty and staff, and amazingly determined students who want an education and who set a high bar in their grit, resilience and courage. Pinsker then is right — we will be touched … but in this case, we can use our learners’ determination and purposefulness to get through in ways that can inspire and give strength. These three students, and so many others, can and will help to keep us strong and enable a deeper, more thoughtful purpose-driven university regardless of the challenge.

If an FIU student you know is in need of support or resources, please let us know by visiting and filling out a “Share a Concern” form.  

Happy Easter to all who care about making the world a better place! 

In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg