For his first two years at Fordham, Alvin Feliz Varona was commuting to the Rose Hill campus, first from New York City’s northern suburbs and then from a town further north, near Poughkeepsie.

From there, he commuted for two hours. Each way.

“That is very difficult to do, if you do that every day,” especially in light of the “pretty intense” workload that comes with being an English major and biology minor on the pre-health track, said Feliz Varona, a senior.

Then he found out about the Fordham Housing Fund, devoted to helping students overcome the financial barriers to living on campus. With support from the fund, Feliz Varona moved onto campus in junior year and today lives in O’Hare Hall. The move enabled him to take leadership roles in clubs including the Black Student Alliance, for which he is now vice president, and the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students, of which he is president.

“[When] you have those extra four hours, your life changes completely,” he said. “The difference was way bigger than what I anticipated. And honestly, it’s just a blessing that I am thankful for every day.”

This year, the Fordham Housing Fund is supporting Feliz Varona and eight other students who came to Fordham via its Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, or CSTEP, a New York state program that helps students from underrepresented groups enter science-related fields and the licensed professions.

The fund has been focused on CSTEP students since it was established in 2011 by Brian and Kathy MacLean, both FCRH ’75, who sought to help students who would most benefit from living on campus. Recipients had often struggled with long commutes or other challenges such as crowded and distracting living situations that made it hard to focus on their studies, hurting their grades.

The MacLeans, two of the University’s generous donors, made further major gifts to build the fund’s endowment after meeting recipients and hearing how they had benefited from it. “The stories from the CSTEP students that get the [funding awards]are so amazing,” said Brian MacLean, a former Fordham University trustee and current trustee fellow. Kathy MacLean, a current member of the Board of Trustees, noted one benefit in particular: “When we talked to the students, we were surprised that for many of them, the number one benefit they most appreciated was being able to sleep more. This positively impacted their grades and general well-being.”

The MacLeans have been the primary donors to the Fordham Housing Fund but left their names out of its title in order to encourage others to support it as well. In adding to the fund, they also sought to enhance diversity among on-campus residents—a goal that dovetails with those of the University’s $350 million fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, which the MacLeans helped to advance with a new gift to the housing fund this year.

A Transformative Experience

Thirty to 40 students apply every year for funding awards, which cover housing and a basic meal plan, said Michael Molina, Fordham’s CSTEP and STEP director. Students are selected based on grade point average, an essay, and an interview focusing on how they would get more involved and contribute to the on-campus community if they could live in a residence hall.

For those selected, the experience of living on campus can be transformative, Molina said—especially if they would otherwise be living with multiple family members and wanting for privacy.

As a student, “there are those times you need to be around people, to be around your peers and your friends and your classmates, then there are those times that you need to have some time to yourself,” he said.

The number of CSTEP students helped by the fund has grown from two in the first year to nine today, Molina said. For this year’s recipients, the fund has made all the difference, helping them realize their ambitions for their time at Fordham.

A 180-Degree Change

Yu Jin In, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, had been waking up as early as 5:30 a.m. to commute to Rose Hill from her family’s home in Queens—taking two buses, occasionally having to run from one to catch the other, to arrive in time for 8 a.m. classes.

Now, thanks to her housing fund award, she lives in the Martyrs’ Court residence halls and her Fordham experience has “changed 180 degrees”—she’s better able to make friends, take night classes, and use her evenings for unbroken studying or other engagements. “I could finally say ‘yes’ to dinner [with]people,” she said.

Things also changed for Fawziah Fariha, a senior on the pre-health track who is double-majoring in psychology and theology, when she no longer had a long commute to and from her Bronx home.

With the extra time and flexibility, she was better able to get more involved with student clubs and push beyond her comfort zone. “I’m able to really lead,” said Fariha, who is a secretary in the Muslim Student Association; director in Fordham University South Asian Entity, or FUSE; president of the Laennec Society, a pre-health students’ club; and co-founder of the new Bengali Student Association. Through leadership, she said, “you learn so much about yourself.”

Some students faced long commutes even if they were relatively close to Rose Hill. For Giovanni Barreiro, a senior engineering physics major, it could take an hour and a half from the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. For Chealsy Garcia, a junior general science major also in the pre-health program, it could take an hour to get to and from Washington Heights. Living on campus, Garcia is able to spend more time with various activities, like being a mentor with Mentoring Latinas, and is in the process of joining Fordham’s EMS service, known as FUEMS.

Daphne Buitron, a pre-health senior majoring in sociology and minoring in biology, enjoys being able to meet up with other students for studying, as well as having time for other things like joining the dance club, which has late meetings.

“This gave me the chance to do something for myself, but also continue with my academics,” she said. “I could do what I want instead of what I need and then leave.”

‘Somebody Looking Out for You’

Maria Del Sol Estrada, a senior double-majoring in political science and Spanish language and literature and applying to law school, originally applied for the on-campus housing out of concern about bringing home COVID-19 to her family members—including her grandmother—with whom she was living in Manhattan.

“It affects you subconsciously,” she said. “You think about things more. I literally think I washed my hands every single time I would touch something. I didn’t take my mask off for a really long time.”

Isaac Mullings, a junior psychology major on the pre-health track, said it’s been interesting to be able to pick up food on campus without opening his wallet; he can simply use his meal plan card.

He said the housing award has encouraged him to do well. “I think it’s served [as]a point of motivation—‘Okay, there’s somebody looking out for you, so just try your best in class today,’” he said.

Make a gift to the Fordham Housing Fund here

To inquire about giving to any area of the University, please contact Michael Boyd, senior associate vice president for development and university relations, at 212-636-6525 or [email protected]. Learn more about Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, a campaign to reinvest in every aspect of the Fordham student experience.


Chris Gosier is research news director for Fordham Now. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].