Sisters From Vietnam Find a Home at Hilbert

One may have had the opportunity to meet them personally or see them on campus adorned in habits and veils. They are Sisters Thu Pham and Doan Tran from Vietnam. Since their calling to Holy Orders up to the present, both are here at Hilbert to gain a valuable education which will enable them to perform their ministry in Vietnam. 

Before their journey to Hilbert began, both Sisters received their calling to Holy Orders in a distinctive way. Sister Thu described her calling as “Very strong and clear”. The strong part revealed itself when her friends set their sights on careers in the bustling city of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. For Sister Doan, she credits her father’s encouragement but, in the end, she said “God called through my father”.  Both Sisters come from agricultural communities in the rich rice fields of Vietnam.

When asked about the work or ministry they will perform upon return to Vietnam, Sister Thu said, “Do what our nun superiors asks us to do” however ministry assignments are often based upon one’s education and skills. Sister Thu Pham is a Human Services major. Her goal is to minister to victims of domestic violence, pregnant women, homeless persons, and the elderly.  Majoring in Psychology, Sister Doan Tran looks forward to applying her skills towards counseling others.

After undergoing years of theological studies and discernment, often through isolation and strict prayer, both Sisters took their final vows and received rings symbolizing betrothal to Jesus Christ. Once complete, together they travelled to the United States in furtherance of academic study. Following time at a junior college in Indiana where they studied English, they applied for scholarships through a program for Vietnamese sisters and priests.

The head of the program, A Vietnamese priest named Father Bao Nguyen, had the following to say when asked why Hilbert College was chosen “Srs. Thu Pham, Doan Tran, and I knew Hilbert College through Dr. Michael Brophy, the President, whom I have known for the past decade since he was the President at Palos Verde Marymount College in California. We have kept in touch for a long time, and Dr. Brophy invited the Sisters to study at this beautiful college. Instead of selecting large universities, the sisters want to have a better community life where the Hilbert college can provide hospitality and friendly intimacy.”

When Fr. Bao was asked about how familiar he is about Hilbert, he said “Hilbert college is a small college where people know each other and enjoy human development through social interaction and inner circles of classmates and faculty. Near the city Buffalo, the college has attractive location where students can contemplate the beauty of nature at Niagara Falls or cross the the border to explore Canada with the big city Toronto about two hours away. With its Catholic Franciscan heritage and values, Hilbert college is a good educational environment for the religious like Mrs. Pham and Tran from Vietnam to nurture their religious tradition and Catholic involvement in social justice. Hilbert truly is  what the sisters hope to accomplish formal education here in the U.S. and prepare them for the global leaders with competent skills of discernment, responsibility, and leadership. “

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of State titled Government Committee for Religious Affairs, approximately 7% of the Vietnamese population is Catholic (2019). Sister Doan and Thu’s ministry will be a lifelong commitment of serving their fellow citizens regardless of religious denomination and their Hilbert education will play a key role in fulfilling their service to others.

Covid Causes Issues for Real Estate Industry

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began this spring, many businesses either shut down, or strict guidelines were put into place. On March 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the real estate industry would be put “on hold” in attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Hunt Real Estate agent, Cheyanne Seelau, says the market has been crazy since the end of March.  “The coronavirus impacted us because we could only show our houses virtually, so more realtors were out of work until we were allowed to show in person with restrictions”, Seelau said. Late March, Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed real estate an essential business, but put many strict guidelines in place, only allowing agents to show their homes virtually. Many agents were unable to show their houses this way, and ultimately were out of work for months until their re-opening at the beginning of June.

“Prior to the shutdown in March, we were about to enter our busy season”, Seelau said. When realtors were finally able to begin showing in person again, things were busier than normal. Agents are currently experiencing a sellers’ market, as houses are going for over-asking price, explained Seelau. Don and Denuelle Meyer, clients of Seelau, said their experience selling one of their apartment complexes has been more successful than expected for this season. Because of the coronavirus, there are more buyers than sellers in the markets, and houses are selling much faster than normal, Seelau said. When the housing market slowed down drastically during the beginning of the virus, buyers became eager to buy, and sellers began taking advantage of this, by listing their properties, Denuelle Meyer said.

During the pandemic, some homeowners’ mortgages were modified due to the effects of COVID-19. Seelau said that there haven’t been too many foreclosures on houses yet, but soon there will be, when modified mortgages do not get paid. It is still too early to tell if the coronavirus pandemic will have any irreversible changes to the housing market, Seelau said. 

Covid Causes Challenges for Volunteers

 Since late February, COVID 19 has turned the system of considered norms in the world and, has caused a change in which we look at those norms leading to a shortage of volunteers. These norms over a period as the virus spread systematically went away leaving behind a path of dried up dreams, hopes, futures, and aspirations, many without a family member and millions without a job.

 When most think of the impact  COVID 19 has had, they think of the economic, social, and financial ramifications that have occurred in our nation, their neighbors and even themselves.  However, the impact goes far beyond what many see or choose to acknowledge, as there is a shortage of volunteers in our region and in the world. 

Rachel Wozniak, the Director of Service Learning and Community Engagement at Hilbert College, said she has seen the impact the virus has had on the volunteer community first hand.

“The Office of Service Learning and Community Engagement has continued to offer limited, regular service opportunities with some of our long-standing community partners, such as Meals on Wheels, Resurrection Life Food Pantry and the Teacher’s Desk,” she said.

Wozniak said some of the typical service learning events on campus such as the Peace Walk and the Day of Service in a more remote way, experiencing and learning one story of St. Francis and by making scarf’s and blankets for the salvation army were still offered this semester.

Hilbert students as whole are conscientious driven individuals who strive to not just better certain organizations, they strive to better the community as a whole, she added.

“The services being offered by these Hilbert Community Partners have had a need even during this terrible pandemic to serve the needy, the poor, and the unprivileged. The essential services that many of our community partners provide are still are offered. However, many of our community partners are limited in the number of volunteers that can serve – both from a health and safety perspective (reduced capacity) and individual comfort-level of the volunteers,” Wozniak said. 

In the Hilbert Community, there is one group of students on campus whose task is to complete hours of service work each semester from Freshmen to Senior year. Dr. Amy Smith is the head of the Honors Program. She said that while the Honors Program has an emphasis on service, due to circumstances caused by the pandemic in recent months the necessary hours for the program from the spring semester have been forgiven.  The pandemic has meant there are fewer opportunities to have direct service. However, new and unique projects have come up as a result, such as opportunities to make videos reading to kids, or to make quick easy projects that parents at home with their remote learning student can do.   

“There are different and creative ways to look at community service, it can be community engagement or community advocacy”, Smith said. “They are still important experiences even if they aren’t community service.”

Businesses Deal with Covid Restrictions

Covid-19 has had mass effects across all aspects of our lives. One thing that was greatly affected was business.

Different industries were hit in different ways, with the service sector, particularly bars and restaurants, being hit hard. Rules have been put in place that shorten their hours and reduce the amount of people they can have in their establishments, causing many service workers to lose their jobs, as owners of these establishments cannot afford to pay them even with the help that they have received from the government. Laurie Yeager, the manager at restaurant Deep South Taco, described the experience managing a restaurant during this pandemic.

“It has been rough to say the least” Yeager said. “Our busy season is the summer, so we missed out on a ton of revenue that we were expecting to have. The biggest killer was the revenue we lost on Cinco de Mayo, as are sales are higher that day than any other day all year”.

One thing that helped keep these businesses afloat was the boom of the delivery companies like Uber Eats, Door Dash and Grub Hub. Deep South Taco, even though they were not able to have anyone inside the restaurant, was able to do take out with online orders and orders through these companies. “They are not always the easiest to deal with, but without these delivery companies I don’t know if we could have made it through the pandemic.” Yeager said.

Although there are more new guidelines from Governor Cuomo, Deep South Taco is still open for business.

“Come visit us for some Nachos and Margaritas!” Yeager said. “We are doing our best to follow the guidelines and to make every customer feel safe, but we need your help and supporting local restaurants is the best way to do it”.

Although this may be a bigger problem that should be addressed, it shows why the liquor industry has not dipped at all and is even thriving in some cases. Colonial Wine and Spirits in Orchard Park is one of the stores that has been consistently busy during the pandemic.

Manager Paul Gorcyzca said there have been many changes they have had to adjust to. With the store being packed all the time, these safety precautions are so important to follow and it sounds like it is this stores’ number one priority.

“It has been a lot of curb side orders that we aren’t used to, but anyway people want to come and shop here and support us we appreciate it,” Gorcyzca said. “We have tried to make it easy with our online orders and phone orders, and people have shown their appreciation for the safety precautions we take. Nothing is more important than our employees and our customers safety.”

Peer Leaders Help Freshmen Adjust

Hilbert College peer leaders are making an impact on the new freshman even with the new COVID-19 protocols and restrictions.

Peer leaders are helping many freshmen around campus and making their first-year experience even better.

Peer leaders are like a professor’s helper in the class where they get to connect one on one with the new freshman, helping them navigate things around campus, meet new students and help their class with needs or concerns they have as they are starting their first year of college.  With COVID-19 this year, things are a little different this year but are mostly the same.

Peer leader Sydnea Schiede said that she is like an older sister to her class helping them whenever and however she can.

“Formally if a freshman needs anything like help dropping a class or catching up in a class, I will help them,” Schiedel said. “But if they just need someone to vent or talk to while experiencing their first year of college, I’m there to help them too”

Makenna Payton, another peer leader, said the duties and responsibilities of a peer leader include weekly check-ins, teaching some lessons and just being there for her students.

“I help/assist my professor with any lectures or structured classes,” Payton said. “For example I present and lead a few classes myself like I did a PowerPoint on time management and study tips”

Freshman Paige Wagner said her peer leader has helped her navigate a strange first year of college.

“My peer leader has helped me a lot especially when figuring out blackboard and juggling my assignments,” she said. “My peer leader is very easy to talk to and they usually have 15-minute meetings with each student frequently to check in on them.”

Mix of Excitement and Frustration Over Presidential Election

This year America saw one of its most contentious election cycles in decades. For many Hilbert students this was their first time voting in a presidential election.

On Hilbert College’s campus there was a mix of excitement and frustration, as students were happy to be participating in the process, but put off by some of the rhetoric around the election and anxious to know the results as ballot counting took much longer than a typical year due to the high volume of mail-in ballots because of the pandemic.

A Senior at Hilbert College, Brianna Stegmeier shared her thoughts and said the slow process of counting mail in ballots made for a less-than-ideal first time voting experience.

“This was my first time voting this year, so it was very exciting but at the same time frustrating,” Stegmeier said in an interview conducted before results were finalized. “I just wish everything were more organized and we find out soon.” 

Stegmeier shared how she is frustrated in the system and the many conspiracies that came with this year’s election and hopes everything was fair and accurate.  

Hilbert Sophomore, Grace Zabawa, said it was also her first-time voting.

“I voted by mail this year,” Zabawa said. “It was my first time, so it felt pretty cool and convenient to be able to do it all from home since I am all online.”

Zabawa was thankful for the opportunity to be able to vote from home and was excited to be able to exercise her right to vote for the first time.  

Sophomore, Anna Hagner said she was glad to vote, but was ready to look forward to the future.

“I was really excited to vote this year but now I would just like the election to be over,” Hagner said in an interview that came before results were certified. “I hope we find out the official results soon so we can all finally move on with our lives”.  

Hilbert Covid Protocols Prove Effective

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In a time where the world is working to control a pandemic, Hilbert College staff, faculty and students have been persevering and thriving through the first 12 weeks of the semester.

At other colleges and universities across Western New York, the state and the country numbers have been substantially higher than the 14 positive cases that have been reported on the Hilbert campus. New York State alone has more than 10,000 cases at 181 schools, according to the Covid College Tracer Tracker put out by The New York Times.

Jennine Lukasik, the head of the Math department at Hilbert College, said the protocols had been followed well throughout in-person learning.

“I don’t have any problems with students not wearing their masks or wiping down their areas before and after class,” she said. 

Although Hilbert is a relatively small campus, almost everyone seems to be following the protocols, and those protocols have been working to protect community members, which shows in the small number of positive cases reported.

While some schools like SUNY Oneonta were forced to switch to remote learning just a few weeks into the semester – more than 700 positive cases were reported on the 6,500 student campus this semester – Hilbert was able to continue in-person learning through mid November, just 10 days short of the goal of making it to Thanksgiving break.

The school choose to switch to remote learning, not because of an outbreak on campus, but because of alarming positivity rates in the surrounding community.

Some students at bigger schools have described very different experiences.

Daniel Scully, a senior at the University at Buffalo, said he has seen some students not following protcols on campus.

“For the most part, faculty have been doing everything they can to get students to follow protocols,” Scully said. “I do see students sometimes hanging out in bigger groups without masks which is something that nobody wants to see”.

UB was able to continue in-person learning through the Thanksgiving break, despite crossing just over the state’s 100 active case threshold in the final week.

“I believe that the protocols that the school has put in place are working, but if students do not follow them, they could ruin it for everyone,” Scully said. “If we can just be smart and get through this semester, hopefully, things can start to get back to normal.”

One of the biggest differences between private colleges, such as Hilbert or Canisius College, and public schools such as UB, is that the state school has a much more accessible live update of the number of cases confirmed at all levels of the school.

Scully said he knew the exact amount of cases that had been confirmed to the minute and he  is notified every time there’s a new case through the State University of New York covid tracker website.

A Hilbert student must go on the state’s website check how many cases have been reported, which appear in weekly batches.

Amanda Whalen, a sophomore at Canisius College said her school uses an app called Campus Clear that is required to be used by all Canisius students while they are on campus. Whalen said the app is quite easy to use and makes the Covid-19 protocols clear for students.

“At first I thought it was going to be a pain having another thing to do while getting adjusted to the new ways on campus, but Campus Clear has made it easier because all the Covid information that you need is all right there,” Whalen said.

Now, the hope is that students will be able to return to school for in-person learning again next semester. Like other schools, Hilbert officials have pushed back the beginning of the semester and eliminated spring break in an effort to make things run smoothly.

Hilbert Professor Jenelle Lukasik said she thought students did everything they could to keep the community safe this semester.

“I think everything is going very well so far,” Lukasik said. “The seating in classrooms is spaced out enough. Everyone has been staying in their areas, and the cleaning procedures are being clearly followed. It’s as normal as it can be at this point in time and I believe we are on the right track.”

A Familiar Face Returns to Hilbert

There’s a familiar face back on the Hilbert campus after a brief hiatus: Jeff Papia.

Papia, who returned this year as Hilbert’s Vice President of Mission Integration and Campus Ministry, took a position with D’Youville College in 2018, where he had a similar job as their Chief Mission Officer. 

He said he is very happy to be back.

“It’s a Joy,” Papia said. “I’m seeing old friends and making new ones, and coming back to the Hilbert student community.”

Hilbert is an institution that is proud of its Franciscan heritage and values  and seeks to do good, as the founder of the college Mother Collete Hilbert envisioned.  At the heart of Hilbert the goal is to help make individuals who are empathetic and informed.  

Papia had been a member of the Hilbert Community loved by many when he left for D’Youville. Eileen Stack, the Administrative Assistant to President Michael Brophy, works closely with Papia. She said she is very excited to have him back on campus. 

“It’s an absolute pleasure because he is a genuine Franciscan person and lives his life as a Franciscan,” Stack said.

While some students may not be familiar with Papia, many on campus are familiar with his events. Agape Latte, a popular speaking series where students have an opportunity to get to know a side of professors and faculty on campus that they wouldn’t have learned about in a traditional class setting, is one of his hallmarks. 

Papia said that while D’Youville was a school of faith that he was “grateful to be back at a Franciscan College” as his heart is with the identity of Hilbert. 

Stack  said Papia fits right in with the administrative team.

“I’m very fortunate as the people I support are those who help to make decisions based on the values they hold in the college,” she said. 

While the entire world and Hilbert is currently going through what would be considered a new norm Papia’s office is not going to slow down, as he said he remains passionate for what he does and stands committed to his roll on campus despite challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

“No, nothing really has changed. The goal is to support our Franciscan heritage and students,” Papia said. “So how I do it may be different but the goal is the same.”         

Hilbert Moves to Virtual Classes

Last week, Hilbert College announced it’s moving to online class instruction after Friday, November 13 due to increased COVID-19 cases across Erie County. The move comes just a week before the original target date of transitioning to virtual learning, which was just before Thanksgiving.

Dr. Michael Brophy, the college’s president, said the decision to move earlier was a proactive one.

“This previous Sunday when the governor made it clear that Western New York was moving into what they call the yellow zone,” Brophy told HAWK Radio News on Thursday. “We just had to think about all the different logistics that would kick into gear if God forbid, the virus started moving quickly. And because Western New York is struggling right now with the virus, we thought it best to be able to send everyone home on Friday.”

The state’s yellow zone area includes Hamburg and much of Erie County. With that designation comes many new restrictions including limited dine-in seating at restaurants, gatherings are limited to 25 people or less, and certain businesses must close by 10pm.

Also included was a testing requirement for schools, mandating that they test at least 20 percent of students, faculty, and staff per week. While the requirement did not include private colleges like Hilbert, Brophy said the difficulty to meet that should the state mandate institutions like Hilbert to do so was also a factor in the early online transition.

“We determined through the governor’s office that we weren’t required to do that [testing],” he said. “But the fact is that if we needed to do testing, for better or worse, the local and federal governments just haven’t provided this infrastructure for lots of rapid testing for lots of people. So we realized that if we needed to test everyone, we were in a tough place. It wasn’t just financial, it was really just logistical with the tests to be there.”

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States in March, many professors were caught somewhat off guard after Hilbert moved to teaching online. Dr. Brophy said this time, they’re prepared.

“The faculty worked all summer long on having their courses prepared to be taught online,” Brophy said. “They prepared to be online at Thanksgiving, so it’s not going to be a great hardship on the faculty. But obviously, we’re really, really sad about our students, especially our freshmen who are in their first year of college and having to deal with this. But we do think, as a Franciscan college, we have to be thinking about people’s whole lives, and welfare.”

As of November 15, Hilbert has reported 12 COVID-19 cases to the state from the beginning of the semester, including both commuter and residential students. Looking ahead to a return to having students in the classroom, Dr. Brophy is confident in the January 25 return date for the spring semester.

“I think our students know that we did a really good job this summer, we queued everything up, people came back, we started the fall semester,” Brophy said. “But it came down to a lot of planning and sacrifices. We’re gonna do the same thing for the spring. What we’re hearing from the medical community, of course, is that the next month will be very difficult for most of the country, but in a new year, the vaccines will be available to folks. So we are preparing to come to be back on the 25th for sure.”

Classes for this fall semester will continue on virtually until December 18.

Professor John Culhane Began his Career in Service

Fifty years ago last month, Professor John Cullhane took a step in a series of many on a journey of service throughout his career. He joined the United States Army.

The decision for him was easy, Culhane said.

“It was the mid-sixties and I had taken a break from delivering newspapers,” Culhane said. “I read an article about the Vietcong. Afterwards, I went home and told my mom I wanted to join the Army and go to Vietnam”.

It was a calling rooted in his family history. His father served in the illustrious 82nd Airborne Division that parachuted behind enemy lines as the beaches of Normandy were being stormed, Culhane said.

America was ensnared in a “cold war” against communism. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the spread of communism was like a row of dominoes: when one falls, they all fall, only the “dominoes” were real countries.  During his inaugural speech, President John Kennedy pledged American support to any country that wanted help in fighting communism. It also meant that millions of young Americans would be faced with the likelihood of military service either voluntary or involuntary.

The mid-sixties was a time when public support for the fight against communism in Vietnam was at its highest. In 1968, that support dwindled as Americans began to question what progress was being made all while daily television news footage showed disturbing images of U.S. and Vietnamese casualties. Footage of casualties in subsequent conflicts after Vietnam were mostly censored. 

 In late 1969, President Nixon announced combat troops would begin withdrawing from Vietnam and that the South Vietnamese would assume a larger role in fighting the communists. Despite the reduction in troop levels, the war effort still needed helicopter pilots.

“I had a nagging desire to fly,” Culhane said.

After nearly one year of flight training, Cullhane earned his army wings and deployed to Vietnam.

Cullhane explained that when he arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned to the First Air Cavalry “Air Cav” Division and flew on utility helicopters nicknamed Hueys.  The life of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam was dangerous and the pilots who flew them simply ran on adrenaline. Cullhane spent his days flying troops and supplies.

Culhane in Vietnam

Off duty, his evenings were filled with poker games and warm beer amongst his fellow flyers- all happy that they were one day closer to going home. When flying, his lunch usually consisted of canned ham slices and bread. Occasionally, a surprise in the form of a larger can would await him: a coffee tin packed full of cookies from home. Since the beginning of time, soldiers have always cherished mail and care packages from home.

“A lot of soldiers…me included, would get “Dear John” letters,” Culhane said.

They were break up letters from their girlfriends.

“Dating someone in the military was very unpopular at the time,” he said. “We didn’t have the support that we have now”.

Humor was one coping mechanism the flyers used which is why those letters were often posted in a common area for others to read, Culhane added.

 The high point during his combat experience occurred when Cullhane’s unit was tasked with flying South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia, he said.

Kept secret from the public, American strategists knew the enemy had been stockpiling weapons and supplies in the neighboring country but were not allowed to pursue them. When South Vietnamese soldiers were given the order to advance into the neighboring country, they needed a ride.

Cullhane described the first landing as “intense” and that “gunfire erupted from all over the bamboo covered jungle…so intense that one helicopter next to us turned onto its side and crashed.”

He and his unit would spend the next two months flying troops and supplies into Cambodia, Culhane said.

A few days after the missions into Cambodia started, the Kent State shooting took place in which Ohio National Guard soldiers shot into a group of protesters on campus. Four protesters were killed. College campuses across the country experienced intense anti-war demonstrations.

 Cullhane said it was the best and worst year of his life. Memories of Vietnam continue to this day, yet his most important lesson was learning to overcome the fear of death. It is a deep and personal experience which many veterans and others in dangerous professions have had to accept in order to carry out their duties, he said.

Professor Cullhane returned home to a country that distanced itself from these heroes yet he stayed on course to complete law school, become a Monroe County Assistant District Attorney, work high profile cases as an FBI agent, and finally to Hibbert.