The four international students exchanged knowing glances and nervous laughter when asked what it was like as Fall 2020 approached, when they realized they would not make it to campus.
Despite their hard work, their strong applications and the personal assistance of ACPHS staff, the obstacles to getting to Albany were too big to overcome. The U.S. Consulates in India and Nepal, where the young women lived, remained shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They could not obtain visas to leave their countries.
With help from ACPHS faculty and staff, the women eventually began their master’s program in pharmaceutical sciences in early 2021, although a January start is typically prohibited in that program. Looking back on the effort to get here, they sighed almost in unison. Anisha Paudel expressed their remarkable collective journeys very simply:
“I made it here, and I am graduating on time,” she said.
The four women join 47 others earning degrees this month. The number of students graduating in December is unusually high – about triple that of most years before 2021 – for all kinds of largely individual reasons. Some were able to complete the requirements for their programs early and have jobs already waiting, for example. Others are heading to graduate programs. Of the 51 total graduates, 21 are receiving bachelor’s degrees in pharmaceutical sciences, and more than a third of that group will stay on campus to pursue advanced pharmacy degrees.
The four students receiving their master’s in pharmaceutical sciences, however, share a unique experience. They started a program whose classes are developed to be taken in sequence at the start of what should have been their second semester. Their graduation this month resulted from the willingness of ACPHS faculty to get them on course from that spring semester, combined with their own willingness to put in the hard work needed to stay on track.
“These four pharmaceutical sciences graduates have it all – resilience, determination, and an unwavering commitment to continuing their academic journey,” said Justin Hadley, coordinator of graduate programs.
Three of the students – Shruti Deodhar, Shreeya Jadhav and Sreeja Edara – are from India. Paudel is from Nepal. All were accepted to ACPHS in the spring of 2020. From the beginning, ACPHS stood out because of both the research being conducted here and the personal outreach from faculty and staff, they said.
“This College was research-oriented and that was something we all wanted to do – proper research,” Jadhav said.
“Just the involvement of people here – that was one of the things that made me choose ACPHS,” said Deodhar.
They received their acceptance letters around the time the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. None of them was terribly worried. They expected, as did many public health experts, that the spread of the virus would be reasonably contained by fall. What actually happened, of course, is history. COVID-19 continued to spread widely, with development of vaccines and treatments months away.
The students recalled conversations with ACPHS faculty and staff about attending classes virtually in Fall 2020, but they worried about missing the hands-on laboratory experiences essential to the pharmaceutical sciences degree. Nonetheless, the College was committed to permitting them to study here, said Dr. Manish Shah, the program’s current director.
“This was unprecedented,” Shah said of the circumstances the students faced.
A January start had never been allowed for master’s students in pharmaceutical sciences because of the importance of taking the classes in sequence, Shah said. But Dr. Jeffrey Voigt, the program director at the time who retired earlier this year, decided they would make it work. Faculty were charged with providing whatever support the students required to get up to speed. They promised the students that if they started in January, they would be able to complete all their coursework within the two years intended for the master’s program. The rest would be up to them.
It was a challenge for both the faculty and the students, with many extra hours in the laboratory and at the books, Shah said.
Yet they all made it, achieving solid grades and successfully defending their theses this month. Jadhav and Edara have jobs lined up and next month begin new positions, at Crystal Pharmatech and ChromaTan Corp., respectively. Deodhar and Paudel are actively interviewing.
Their unusual circumstances and course of study have forged a strong bond among the women. They were introduced by Hadley even before coming to Albany as they worked to get appointments for their visa interviews. Paudel had to travel from Nepal to India for her interview because the consulate in her country remained closed longer; the other three women helped her figure out how to navigate the system. The women from India made it to Albany in January 2021, and Paudel arrived in February.
Their extra-heavy workload did not provide much time for leisure. But they took advantage of opportunities that ACPHS offered for fun – a bus trip to Boston, an evening of bowling at Crossgates Mall.
“We got very close to each other,” Edara said.