HARRISBURG, Pa. – In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically shifted how people live their lives. For international students, it has an extra layer of complexity – many of them stayed in the U.S. when the pandemic broke, leaving them far from their families back home during summer break.
During this time, Penn State has been doing what it can to support these students – including working with local organizations to coordinate help. Recently, at Penn State Harrisburg, this resulted in a group of local restaurant owners coming together to provide a little slice of home cooking. Overall, between five restaurants, they have provided 145 meals to 65 students at Hershey Medical Center and Harrisburg and York campuses throughout the months of May and June.
A History with Penn State
RuYue Mao and Hao Dong, a married couple and owners of the HeGroup restaurants, have a long history with Penn State Harrisburg.
“We both went there for Masters’ program in public administration from China,” said Mao. “We have many great memories there. We met and fell in love at Penn State and got married while we were studying there.”
After graduating, the couple moved around and worked in different cities around the U.S., but knew that they always wanted to return to Harrisburg.
“We knew that we wanted to serve Authentic Chinese cuisine,” said Mao, “and all of the beautiful memories we had [at Penn State Harrisburg] finally made us decide to open our first location close to campus in Middletown.”
Deep Gupta, one of the founders and Chairman of Asian Indian Americans of Central Pennsylvania (AIACPA), has been active in helping Penn State international students for years. AIACPA provides regular support to Indian students in the area, including events, meals and festival celebrations. They serve over 7,000 in the Harrisburg area.
“Once Indian students started to join, we thought they needed extra support and feeling of home,” said Gupta. “So for the last ten years we have been arranging dinners for Indian students to celebrate Diwali (the festival of lights), the largest and most celebrated festival in India.”
Gupta, it turns out, has long-standing ties with Penn State as well – he was a student at Penn State Harrisburg in the early 1970s.
Rallying to Help
When COVID-19 left students stranded and lonely, Anna Marshall, global education coordinator at Penn State Harrisburg, began to brainstorm ways to support them. Luckily for her, HeGroup and Gupta were already thinking about it.
“A few weeks back, we started hearing from Indian students that they were missing home cooked food,” said Gupta. “So we reached out to Ms. Marshall and offered to help.”
AIACPA coordinated for two restaurants to cater authentic Indian luncheon to Penn State students. AIACPA had also previously offered housing and board to students when the pandemic broke.
“We were students before and understand most of them don't know how or don’t have time to cook, especially under this uncertain situation,” said Mao. “Lots of them are far away from home, and it’s easy for them to feel stressed or overwhelmed.” HeGroup had also donated antiviral sprays to the Food Pantry of Penn State Harrisburg when the pandemic broke.
So, with the combined efforts of HeGroup, AIACPA, Marshall, and two other restaurants in the area, the idea for giving pre-packaged meals to students was hatched.
“We are just so excited that we could put this together for our students,” said Marshall.
“We hope that we can make them feel there are still people here caring for them,” added Mao. “We always appreciated the help we got from our time at Penn State, so we like to do what we can to help the students.”
“It is our pleasure to serve these students while they are 10,000 miles from home,” said Gupta.
“We Are” stories
The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment.