In the wake of coronavirus, Thomas College senior Jose Afonso, 22, has been away from his home and family in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain for a year and a half. His sister lives in Spain. Afonso is shown at the college in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — Jose Afonso has not seen his family in nearly 16 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he says the circumstances don’t call for pity.

A Thomas College senior and member of the men’s tennis program, Afonso, 22, who hails from Tenerife on the Canary Islands, Spain, last saw his family around Christmas 2019. Nonetheless, he’s making the most of his final year at Thomas.

“It’s how you put things in perspective,” he said.

Afonso’s parents and sisters have never set foot on the Thomas campus. They never will.

“They would’ve come to commencement this year, and I was talking to them about coming to see my last matches,” Afonso said, “but that’s not happening for obvious reasons.”

He never anticipated going so long without seeing his family. He admits it’s been difficult not seeing his family for an extended period of time, but it could be worse. It’s all about that “perspective.” Those around Afonso say he is family-oriented, but is doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.

Afonso gained this sense of perspective over his four years at Thomas, where, as a wide-eyed freshman intent on playing basketball, he ended up as a double-major in criminal justice and forensic psychology and top player on the tennis team.

At one point, the biggest adjustment was figuring out the American diet. A “culture shock,” he said.

Thomas College seniors Jose Afonso, left, and girlfriend Jen Snedeker walk across the campus in Waterville Wednesday. In the wake of coronavirus, Afonso, 22, has been away from his home and family on Tenerife, Canary Islands, for a year and half. His sister lives in Spain. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“I considered myself freshman year as a person that was led by emotions,” Afonso said on a sunny but cold day in the college’s library. “My family supports me. … The fact that they are not here physically is only temporary.”

Afonso speaks to his family five or six times a week using the WhatsApp program. His three grandparents, who range in age from 76 to 83, don’t use the internet, so his family will bring a phone over to them to chat.

“I do feel a little homesick right now, because it’s been so long since I’ve gone home,” said Afonso, who plans on pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity. “I try to stay busy, because that’s a coping mechanism.”

In addition to the tennis team, Afonso became a resident assistant in his dormitory.

When the pandemic first hit in March, Afonso had decisions to make. He didn’t know where he would live, nor when he could go home. He worried about losing his student visa, which expires in 2022, if he went back to Spain.

“I didn’t want to go home to Spain and jeopardize my senior year of college,” he said.

Jen Snedeker, Afonso’s girlfriend, had a spot at her family’s Richmond home. She had been to Spain with Afonso twice, including when they visited his family in late 2019. He stayed with the Snedekers until the college welcomed international students back to campus housing in late May.

“It definitely has been difficult, not being able to see his family,” Snedeker said, “but I think he’s handled it very well, honestly.”

She imagines herself in his shoes, at a college in a faraway country with no family around.

“He’s adapted crazily well,” Snedeker said. “He’s doing well in sports and academics, and that’s not something everyone can do.”

In addition to Snedeker and her family, Afonso credits Thomas College Provost Tom Edwards, Vice President of Student Affairs Lisa Desautels-Poliquin, professor Mark Marsolais and academic advisor Laurie Ochs as major individuals in his support system. Friends such as Ryan Chasse and Kristina Hutchinson served as rocks, as did tennis coaches Rob Disch and Jim Begin.

When Afonso came to Thomas, he initially thought he’d play for the Terriers’ men’s basketball program. When 37 students tried out in the fall of 2017 and only 16 made it, Afonso was at a loss when he got cut. He didn’t play a sport his freshman year. He thought about transferring, but decided against it.

“There was an important moment my freshman year when I said ‘I’ve found somewhere where I’m comfortable,'” he said.

In the wake of coronavirus, Thomas College senior Jose Alfonso, 22, has been away from his home and family in Tenerife, Canary Islands, for a year and a half. His sister is from Spain. Afonso , the No. 1 singles player on the school’s tennis team, is shown with his tennis rackets at the college indoor tennis courts in Waterville Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

After a summer at home, Afonso returned to Thomas for his sophomore year. Chasse recruited him to the tennis team. Chasse was the team’s top player at the time and one year Afonso’s senior.

“He’s an athletic guy, and he wanted a sport to play,” Chasse said. “I saw him play ping pong in the commons, and I told him he should try tennis out. I was surprised at how good he got, but it wasn’t a surprise to me as well because of how much time he put in.”

Afonso worked his way into the sixth and final varsity spot as a sophomore and to the second spot as a junior. He’ll finish his college career at the No. 1 spot on the roster. He had never played tennis before getting to college. He grew up idolizing Spanish basketball great Ricky Rubio, not so much tennis legend Rafael Nadal.

“He always strives for perfection,” Begin said. “That striving for perfection has held him in good spirits. Once he starts something he wants to be the very best, so … if he does something, he wants to do it well.”

That translates to tennis, academics and life.

“We all have our own journeys,” Afonso said. “My family is in Spain right now. Hopefully I can visit them this summer.”

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