March 18, 2013

After 120 Days, SUNY Empire State College Staten Island Office Reopens after Hurricane Sandy

Scenes of Staten Island in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

The aftermath of Sandy near the home of Lena Stephanese.

(STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – March 18, 2013) Hard hit by Hurricane Sandy and located in a flood-prone area designated Zone A, SUNY Empire State College’s Staten Island office, located at 500 Seaview Ave., has resumed operations. Repairs to the college’s space have been completed and students again are meeting one on one with their faculty mentors and in study groups and seminars.

When the storm hit Oct. 29, 2012, student Lena Stefanese was in her living room, at her desktop computer, working on her studies, when she heard her husband say the water was on its way. After what she felt could be the false alarm of Hurricane Irene, she did not evacuate, despite her two-story Staten Island bungalow being in Zone A. Thinking this was no big deal, she went for a couple of towels to stuff under the door.

“When I got back to the living room, water was coming in like geysers through the vents,” said Stefanese. “I grabbed my purse and ran upstairs. The water was so powerful. The couch ended up on the ceiling, the refrigerator and the washing machine were knocked over. The basement and the first floor were completely flooded and we lost everything. I was displaced from my home, my job and my school.”

Stefanese was one of more than 200 students to receive an emergency education grant from the college. She used her grant to purchase a laptop so she could continue her studies.

Months later, she is still living in an apartment and working in temporary facilities at her job. But having the college’s Staten Island office back in operation has provided Stefanese with a good deal of stability and normalcy in her unsettled life.

Staten Island faculty Mentor Ruth Losack meets with students in her linguistics course.

Staten Island faculty Mentor Ruth Losack, standing at left, teaching students in her linguistics course.

“Everyone at Empire State College was really most understanding, particularly my faculty mentor Professor Margaret Souza,” said Stefanese. “Professors sent email to see if students were okay, everyone worked with me to help me stay in school. I am really very grateful for all the support.”

Determination is a trait that runs in her family. Stefanese’s daughter, Alyssa, a student at Geneseo, returned with a group of students to help rebuild Staten Island in the aftermath of Sandy; she also traveled to New Orleans to help with the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina.

Empire State College student Lydia Hernandez is another example of perseverance in the face of adversity. She and her husband went to stay with friends when the hurricane hit in October 2012. They are still there.

“I have generous, accommodating friends,” said Hernandez. “But we want our own space and they want their house back, so it’s challenging.”

Hernandez is trying to find an apartment while her house is being rebuilt. The damage to the basement and first floor was significant, all furniture was lost and these areas had to be gutted. The combination of seawater and sewage caused mold behind cabinets, which, along with sheetrock and wood floors, had to be removed.

She persevered and stayed in school. “It was tough, I felt lost,” said Hernandez, “There was no real constant communication at first. But once I heard and got email, oh boy, was that a relief. Then a few weeks after that we began meeting at New Dorp High School and that helped. Still it was difficult to meet with my mentor then. Now, being back in the college office space, it definitely works better.”

Staten Island student Thomas Taratko, at left, meets with his faculty Mentor Dov Fischer.

Staten Island student Thomas Taratko, at left, meets with his faculty Mentor Dov Fischer.

“As incredible as it may seem the hurricane has not affected our enrollment,” said Souza, faculty mentor for both Stefanese and Hernandez and coordinator of the Staten Island office. “Perhaps school is one place for these students to restore normalcy to their lives. Students would come to the study groups and speak of the disasters that they had personally experienced. Even students who did not have their property destroyed would tell of how they were assisting others and how each Staten Island resident feels affected by Sandy. The hurricane in so many ways has again taught us to see the strength of our students. They have faced crisis and continue to focus on their future goals. They have banded together to support and assist each other. Staten Island is indeed a special place and we are fortunate to be here.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, students and faculty from the Staten Island office had been meeting at New Dorp High School, the local public library and fast-food establishments. Many faculty and staff at the Staten Island office worked at the college’s Metropolitan New York Center, which is located in lower Manhattan and oversees the Staten Island and Brooklyn offices.

“My heartfelt admiration goes out to all of the Staten Island students, faculty and staff who showed heroic resilience in response to Hurricane Sandy,” said Cynthia Ward, dean of the college’s Metropolitan New York Center. “Six hundred students attend the Staten Island location and their commitment to their college education was unwavering, even though many had been seriously impacted by the storm. Thanks to New Dorp High School we were able to continue to deliver the face-to-face seminars that Empire State College is famed for.  The crucial relationships between students and their professors, who serve both as advisors and teachers, continued to be strong as they sought out creative ways to meet at various locations around the Staten Island.  It is a time of great celebration as we return to the college’s location at 500 Seaview Ave.”

Faculty, students and staff gather at the college's Staten Island Office.

Students, faculty, and staff gather at the college’s Staten Island Office.

“The reopening of the Staten Island office is the final step in the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, enabling the college to resume our mission of serving students,” said Acting President Meg Benke. “At the peak of the storm, about 9,000 students were affected and nine of the college’s locations had to suspend operations. I am so proud of our students, faculty and staff for their determination and perseverance and grateful we are back to the business of higher education on Staten Island.”

Zone A was under a mandatory evacuation order before, during and after the storm. News reports have documented the devastation in terms of the loss of property and productivity and, far more importantly, in terms of lives lost. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has characterized the hurricane as the worst storm to hit the Northeast in recorded history.

The Staten Island office suspended operations for 120 days, more than 17 weeks, or about four months.

About SUNY Empire State College

SUNY Empire State College was established in 1971 to offer adult learners the opportunity to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State University of New York.

In addition to awarding credit for prior college-level learning, the college pairs each student with a faculty mentor who supports that student throughout his or her college career. Students engage in guided independent study and course work onsite, online or a combination of both, which provides the flexibility for students to learn at the time, place and pace they choose.

Faculty Mentors Gina Torino, standing at left and Amanda-Sisselman,seated at right are happy to be back at the college's Staten Island Office.


Faculty Mentors Gina Torino, standing at left and Amanda-Sisselman at the college’s Staten Island Office.


The college serves more than 20,000 students worldwide at more than 35 locations in New York state and online. Its 66,000 alumni are active in their communities as entrepreneurs, politicians, business professionals, artists, nonprofit agency employees, teachers, veterans and active military, union members and more. More information about the college is available here.


Media contact: David Henahan, director of communications

518-587-2100, ext. 2918

518-321-7038 (after 5 p.m. and on weekends)