Physics professor amasses support for WMU students

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Students have plenty to contend with these days. From studying and preparing for exams, to earning paychecks and adjusting to new housing arrangements, the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed just about everything. A new organization is working to make sure basic necessities aren’t on that list of worries for Western Michigan University students.

Led by Dr. Michael Famiano, a professor of physics, a contingent of WMU faculty, staff, alumni, parents and community members is banding together to collect and deliver food and household products to students still living on or near campus.

Dr. Michael Famiano talks with a student picking up free groceries.

“Because our group is flexible, shamelessly idealistic and has an innate sense of urgency in just about everything we do,” he says, “we were able to mobilize pretty quickly.”

The team has made food deliveries every day since late March, announcing times and locations on its Facebook page. It gives students the opportunity to limit trips out to grocery stores where they could be exposed to COVID-19. Initially assisting about two dozen students, demand has grown to more than 400.

“The students are amazing,” says Famiano. “Many are just relieved that we are able to give them one less thing to worry about. They have been living with worry and uncertainty for a while now, so sometimes it’s nice to know that people care about them—even with the little things.”

Safety is top of mind in everything WMU4Students does. Donations are arranged through an online form, and donors are directed to leave groceries on their front porch for a contactless pickup. Monetary donations are used by the group’s shoppers and in many cases delivered straight to Famiano’s front porch. A form has also been created for those interested in joining the volunteer effort.

EAGER TO HELP

The response from people interested in donating and volunteering, Famiano says, has been overwhelming. In fact, the group has received enough donations that it hasn’t yet had to limit what students can take with them.

A student gets grocercies from inside a van.

“As a scientist who studies supernovae, I love it when things blow up, and this has definitely blown up!”

The group started off as a team of about ten people, and in just a couple of weeks, it has grown to more than 40.

“We’ve become so busy, we’ve differentiated our team into logistics, shoppers, drivers and donors,” Famiano says. “We also maintain contact with University administration to better support each other and figure out the best ways to help the students.”

Michael Worline, marketing specialist for the College of Arts and Sciences, is leading off-campus food delivery efforts. Others who have stepped up with financial and food donations include a number of faculty within the departments of Spanish, biological sciences, history, as well as in the College of Health and Human Services and Haworth College of Business. Dr. Debasri Mukherjee, professor of economics, has been communicating with local businesses to help address student financial needs.

“One of my favorite stories: Dr. Ajay Gupta, professor of computer science, cooked up 20 fine Indian meals and brought them out to one of our grocery sites,” says Famiano. “It smelled so good, and it lasted all of about two minutes!”

The group anticipates continuing grocery deliveries through at least Thursday, April 23—the final day of exams. At that point, it will evaluate how to move forward.

ANSWERING A NEED

A photo of donated nonperishable items.

Khushi Bhatt, a doctoral student studying nuclear astrophysics, was among the first students to receive assistance. She says she was happy to receive a message from her advisor, Famiano, asking if she needed any help.

“It gave me the feeling that there was someone there to care for me when I was so far away from my home country and my family,” says Bhatt, who is from Gujarat, India. Like many international students, she is struggling with the impact of pandemic restrictions on transportation and employment. “In these hard times, the help and support from WMU4students kept us going.”

Bhatt was so touched that she volunteered to join the effort.

“WMU encourages and promotes diversity and inclusivity. Even in this difficult situation, WMU’s faculty members, staff and students are working hand-in-hand to help students in all the different ways they can,” she says.

The daily check-ins and encouragement provided by the WMU4Students group make all the difference for students living in uncertain and anxious times.

“There hangs a poster outside my research guide’s office with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ Every WMU faculty member is justifying their stand in this difficult and challenging situation, not only by teaching the subject of their specialization but also by teaching us a way of life,” says Bhatt. “I am really proud to be a student at WMU.”

CHARITABLE INSPIRATION

This isn’t Famiano’s first experience launching a charity. He’s also in the process of creating a nonprofit aimed at creating transitional housing for young people who age out of the foster care system. The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home order put those plans on hold.

“While we wait to continue our work, the present situation on campus provided a great opportunity to use our talents, compassion and energy to help provide for an immediate need,” he says.

The current endeavor has not only given Famiano’s team an opportunity to help others, it’s opened his eyes to the humanity of his students, showing him needs and concerns that he didn’t know existed before.

“As devastating as the coronavirus has been for humanity and the campus, the good that has come out of this is that we realize what’s most important.”

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