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November 2021

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By Sam Mercer • Staff Writer

Phil Gadzekpo sits in his office in St. Edmund’s 115, he works diligently on two desktop computer monitors while simultaneously live streaming world news on a laptop next to them. The shelves behind his desk are adorned with sculptures and art pieces from several different continents. A chalk board mounted on his wall is scribbled with every possible academic opportunity for an international graduate student at St. Michael’s College. 

An assortment of bagged snacks are arranged next to a Costco coffee maker on the table by the door for the enjoyment of his visitors, who pop in frequently. 

“Almost every day, students come here, get a snack, sit down, chat for a few minutes, and just do the assignments and things like that, and then go to class,” Gadzekpo said. 

As the new director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), Gadzekpo has numerous responsibilities. He provides support to both undergraduate and graduate international students, ranging from guidance with visa applications to weekly trips to the grocery store. 

Originally from Ghana, Gadzekpo has worked in the field of international education for nearly a decade. In 2012, he earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, and went on to work in their Center for International Education. 

“My first task was to work with students from the University of Wisconsin,” he said. “They had a project in Ghana, so I was part of the welcome team. So we worked with them, and that kind of aroused my interest [in international education].”

[What was the exact moment that aroused his interest] 

Gadzekpo came to the United States in 2015 to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education from East Tennessee State University, he worked simultaneously in their Office of International Programs. In 2018, he started work on his doctorate of higher education from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, a process that remains ongoing. 

Gadzekpo then moved to Washington State in March, 2020 and worked as an international admissions coordinator for Washington State University for a year, before he discovered the open position at St. Michael’s College. 

“I was going through this [website] and I saw the position at St. Michael’s College, and I Googled it. And I was like, well, it’s very interesting,” Gadzekpo said. “I did a lot of research on St. Mike’s. And I thought it was great. I liked the fact that they support social justice. They had a lot of programs and activities and events supporting minorities.”

Gadzekpo was hired in July as the director of the OISS, which is part of a broader effort to bolster the College’s appeal to international students. The OISS is overseen by the newly minted Center for Global Engagement (CGE), which opened in July. The CCE coordinates all international activity for the college.

Jeffrey Ayres, professor of political science and director of the CGE, said that Gadzekpo impressed him with his personable nature and extensive experience in international education.

“We had a very good sense that Phil would not only have the skill set to fulfill the responsibilities of the office, but he also would really be a great mentor to students, which is what we’re all about in a small student-centered institution,” Ayres said. 

Gadzekpo quickly established a rapport with Ayres over their shared goals for international engagement. He said it was more like a conversation than a job interview. 

“During my interview, we had a lot of things in common come up… we [Ayres and Gadzekpo] both supported globalization, promoting our students to be global citizens, and also increasing internationalization at St. Mike’s,” Gadzekpo said.  

Gadzekpo’s primary objective is to sustain and support the international student population on campus. He works closely with Peggy Imai, director of study abroad, to encourage more international travel among the student body. He also works with Lisa Lagerquist, associate director of international admissions to increase international student numbers. 

Gadzekpo’s work with international students begins after they are admitted to the College. Enrollment and Marketing Vice President Kristin McAndrew explained the importance of his role at St. Michael’s. 

“He [Gadzekpo]… serves in a critical role as the College’s Principal Designated School Official, which means he is our on-campus expert in immigration regulations,” she said.

Gadzekpo provides guidance in the visa application process, which is a vital step for any international student before they can even enter the country. After helping international students retrieve their visas, he coordinates with a myriad of other services on campus to prepare for their arrival. 

Gadzekpo said he teams up with a wide range of departments including counseling, CMAS [Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services], Bergeron Wellness Center, the Durick Library, dining services, the registrar, and financial services.

 “So pretty much you know, almost all the departments on campus. I reach out to them and make sure that we can help our students feel comfortable and safe,” Gadzekpo said. 

Once students actually arrive in the country, Gadzekpo works to ensure a seamless transition.  Francois Wemniga, an international graduate Fulbright scholar from Burkina Faso, said he was initially concerned about his arrival to the United States. 

“One of my concerns was how I would do once at the airport, but my Director Phil made it easy for me. That day, I even arrived late but he was waiting for me, and even cooked for me because we could not find any open restaurant at that time,” he said.

Senegalese Fulbright Scholar Oumar Djigo said Gadzekpo’s previous academic experience provides him with unique insights into the challenges international students face. 

“As an international scholar himself, he is in a good position to have a bird’s eye view of the actions that need to be taken to support international scholars and promote Saint Mike’s at the international level,” Djigo said. “He takes us shopping regularly despite his busy schedule and does his best to satisfy our needs.”

Wemniga describes an almost familial relationship between Gadzekpo and his fellow scholars, all of whom live in the Townhouse 100s. 

“What I really appreciate with our director as a neighbor is that he does not expect us to call him ‘director.’ He does not put distance between him and us,” Wemniga said. “He considers us as his brothers and sisters. We sometimes have dinner together where he gives us advice on questions we have.” 

Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, an Edmundite Graduate Fellow and neighbor of Gadzepko said his presence and role on campus will enhance the success of the community. 

“I think what Phil does, simply by being a good, decent person combined with his academic research and his work at St. Michael’s will open up the St. Mike’s community to much success in the future,” she said.

Ethan Li ‘22, an international student from China, first interacted with Gadzekpo over the summer via email, and was impressed by his accessibility. “He loves to help people out. We will send an email to him and he will respond really quick. I think that’s the kind of person who really loves his jobs,” he said.

President Lorraine Sterritt expressed optimism for Gadzekpo’s work in rebuilding an international presence at St. Michael’s. “Phil has a very student-centered approach, and that is exactly what we need in this role. We are fortunate to have him at the helm of OISS!” Sterritt said. 

Though Gadzekpo has made significant inroads among the international student population, there remains a long journey ahead for him and Ayres to turn St. Michael’s into the globally engaged institution they envision. The COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing impediment for international students entering the United States.

“After COVID, so many schools need to rebuild their international student population,” Aryes said. “[There is] a sense that the United States isn’t as welcoming to foreigners or international students, we’ve really seen a dramatic decline in international students.” 

Gadzekpo considers obstruction in the immigration system as a significant obstacle. 

“We do our part, for admitted students, to make sure that they are the best fit for St. Michael’s. However, we don’t have control over whether or not they get a visa at the embassy,” Gadzekpo said. 

Though he may spend weeks preparing an international student for arrival, he has no guarantee they will even be allowed in the country. 

“That’s a huge challenge. You prepare your students, you’re excited to see them, and the next day, they send you an email that they’ve been denied a visa, and you know, it’s a bummer, but it’s something that we can’t control,” Gadzekpo said

A major emphasis of the OISS has been the cross-cultural diffusion the program can create. “As we grow our international student population, that can only help to promote global citizenship skills and a sense of intercultural engagement amongst existing domestic students,” Ayres said. 

Gadzekpo has considered implementing a mentor program for domestic students to guide international students through American culture. He believes both groups have a lot to learn from each other. 

“My goal is just not for them to come in and increase our population, but at the same time, get to leave their bubble and do something that is not within the culture. That way, we can have two side effects,” Gadzekpo said.

Shefali Misra, professor of political science, said that a robust international presence would be beneficial to her courses. 

“As a teacher, it is so useful if I have two international students in my class, it seems to enhance the diversity of perspectives threefold,” Misra said. “Simply by coming from a different place, they just have an outlook on things that is shaped by experiences.” 

Though Gadzekpo has a long road ahead for international student engagement at St. Michael’s, he remains optimistic. He and Ayres are particularly excited for the International Student Lounge being renovated in St. Edmund’s 120, which is expected to provide international students with a welcoming space to do work or relax. 

Until then however, Gazekpo’s office is the heart of the OISS. His students can stop by almost any time of the day, whether they need help with immigration documents or just a friendly face to chat with. His door remains open, regardless if they have an appointment or not.

By Connor Starr – Staff Writer

Ashley DeLeon – Executive Editor – contributed to the reporting of this story

St. Michael’s College reported a spike of 87 positive COVID-19 cases within the past week, which is the highest uptick the institution experienced since last spring. President Lorraine Sterritt informed the College of the outbreak in a series of emails from Nov. 3-9 and alleged that Halloween weekend activities served as probable cause.

“We were doing really well as a community up to the point where there were numerous Halloween parties where students were unmasked and in close contact,” Sterritt wrote in a campus-wide email on Nov. 7. “We are deeply saddened that the investigation of the genesis of this increase in positive cases points to Halloween parties as being a significant part of the problem.” 

In-person classes were suspended last Friday resulting from the outbreak and resumed on Monday at instructor discretion. Sterritt also announced that in-person student social gatherings have been suspended, and that party registration would be reevaluated after Thanksgiving break. 

“I can see and hear the impact that this difficult week has had on our community. I’m feeling grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for responding quickly and adjusting, and for adhering to COVID policies. I recognize the sacrifices and stresses involved, and I feel for everyone as we navigate our way through this wretched pandemic. I want our students to have fun, and I want them to be safe. We are a strong community. We will pull through this, and we look forward to brighter days ahead,” Sterritt said in an email to the Defender. 

Following the outbreak, Sterritt announced that there would be an asymptomatic testing center in response to the rise in cases. Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for student affairs, informed the College that the center would be located in Eddie’s Lounge. 

The outbreak made national headlines and was reported by The New York Times on Tuesday. The story was temporarily featured on the landing page of their web site and was later migrated to the COVID-19 updates section.

On Wednesday, the Student Government Association executive board responded to the email from Nov. 7 with a statement on behalf of students and their concerns.

“First and foremost, masking at social gatherings in a student’s living space has been communicated to students as only being needed at their discretion. This guidance was given at a residence hall meeting for townhouses, apartments, and suites by the Director of Residence Life. The College now asserting the guideline has always been proper masking indoors is still required, even in social gatherings with people you know presents a contradiction of what students were told earlier in the year. It has created a sense of frustration, as students who have had small, safe social gatherings within the guidance they were given are now being seen as reckless and unsafe. Further, as students’ homes are considered a private space on campus, this guideline may ultimately prove to be unenforceable without further restricting a student’s ability to live comfortably on this campus,” the board wrote. 

Marketing and Communications Director Alex Bertoni said he felt sad and proud in an email to the Defender. “I am sad because despite so many students doing the right thing, we have this situation. I feel proud because of the students, faculty, and staff that have come together to help out,” he said.

Political Science and International Relations Professor Mike Bosia expressed his perspective as to how state policies may have played a role in this outbreak.

“We are in this position because the governor has been unable to explain why Vermont is experiencing a surge in COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths since August – some of the highest numbers since March 2020… St. Mike’s is part of the larger community, and when public health authorities allow you to go to bars and clubs unvaccinated and without a mask, we can predict that there will be an outbreak,” he said.  

Bosia also believes that the governor is “relying on our impatience instead of our best selves.”

Robert McCabe ’23, explained his frustration about the suspension of social gatherings. “One of the main things students have to look away to is seeing our friends and going to social gatherings, and this gives us a way to get away from the stresses of COVID and school. COVID fatigue is adding up, and we need a way to escape.” 

Gabby Doe ’23 believes that engaging in off campus activities could have contributed to the outbreak. “It seemed like we were doing a pretty good job at containing them, but the spike from Halloween weekend made sense because a lot of people were going to other schools or bars to party. And that’s just introducing COVID from somewhere else into our environment. There’s nothing they could do to prevent that… They can’t force us to stay on campus,” she said.

Sterritt expressed her desire for students to enjoy the college experience, though the spike has heightened a need for an increase in precautionary measures.

“I know you want to enjoy your St. Michael’s experience to the fullest, but this spike in cases, the onset of winter, and the power of this virus call for even more thoughtful consideration and personal responsibility,” Sterritt said in an email. She called upon students to join a collective effort to “do well and do good.” 

Sterritt also added that no student experienced symptoms that required hospitalization. 

On Nov. 5, Sterritt informed the College community about 54 reported cases and that the Executive Policy Group would meet to assess the status of campus. 

“I can’t emphasize enough the crucial importance of abiding by the College’s COVID policies. There are vulnerable people on campus and vulnerable family members in the homes of faculty and staff. It is imperative that everyone make wise choices, choices that take into account the wellbeing of every member of our community,” she wrote in an email on Nov. 5. 

Faith Morgan ’23 said she felt confused and scared about how the remainder of the semester would pan out after seeing the first two emails. 

“I remember seeing the first email about the 10 cases, and I was  a little anxious about that, but then I was also kind of okay, because 10 is still pretty low, given that we’re all vaccinated,” she said.

“Then we got the email about 31 more cases. With this one, I felt a lot more anxious and I felt like my mind was all over the place. I would have moments where I’d be super anxious, but then I’d tell myself well we’re doing what we can. This spike is kind of inevitable, it was going to happen at some point.”

COVID-19 cases have increased in Vermont since this summer. The Vermont Department of Health reported that the highest number of daily cases throughout most of the summer was 59, until a recent spike in August led to over 100 reported cases per day. 

Months later, the state is experiencing a spike as daily cases reach the highest they have ever been at 591 cases yesterday.

Gov. Scott said in a press conference on Nov. 4 that this pandemic is “driven by the unvaccinated.”

Sterritt announced last week that boosters would be required for vaccinated students, faculty and staff. 

“The vaccine is an incredibly effective tool – the most effective tool – we have.  It’s greatest strength is in reducing severe illness requiring hospitalizations and reducing deaths,” said Trish Siplon, public health director and political science professor. 

Bertoni, who also serves as a member of the Executive Policy Group, explained that the deadline to receive boosters is undecided. 

“The booster shot is required for students as they become eligible, but a deadline has not yet been established because it varies from student to student,” Bertoni said. “We will provide ample time for students to get their boosters. We just ask that students schedule their booster as they become eligible, which is six months after receiving their second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.” 

Vermonters who expect to receive a COVID-19 booster can select a different vaccine brand than their initial shot. 

The FDA and CDC announced the approval of vaccines to children ages 5-11 on Oct. 29. 

“Thankfully, 44,000 more Vermonters [children ages 5-11] just became eligible for vaccination. Today’s data underscores the urgency for parents and caregivers to sign their children up to be vaccinated if they are eligible. Vaccines are safe, effective and free. Not only will they limit spread of the virus, but also limit disruptions, like the need to quarantine after exposure, which leads to kids missing school and other activities that help their social and emotional wellbeing,” Scott said in his Nov. 4 press conference.  

As some community members live with unvaccinated children, this can mitigate potential fears of bringing the virus home.

In regards to the safety of the College community, Sterritt added that “With regard to the current increase in cases, it is absolutely imperative that everyone follow the College’s COVID policies. Everyone must remember that there are vulnerable people on campus and that there are faculty and staff who have unvaccinated children and other vulnerable people at home.” 

Though the St. Michael’s community has been rattled by the outbreak, Bertoni is hopeful that our community will overcome this.

To register for a booster or to check for eligibility, visit the Vermont Department of Health website.

Asymptomatic faculty, staff and students can schedule a COVID-19 test through the Sign-Up Genius linked in a Nov. 9 email from the Office of Student Life.

Symptomatic students can call or visit the Bergeron Wellness Center to receive a test.