Top U.S. Universities cancel study-abroad programs amid fears of coronavirus

Friday, February 7, 2020

Top U.S. colleges and universities are scrambling to assess the risks to their study-abroad and exchange programs as concerns about China’s coronavirus outbreak spread. 

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, colleges and universities have had to act fast. In the U.S., nearly all top colleges and universities are canceling study-abroad and global immersion opportunities while also prohibiting travel affecting hundreds of thousands of students who are attending school in order to earn their bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees/PhDs.

This is a global phenomenon—From Europe to Australia and the United States, universities in countries that host Chinese students have seriously reconsidered academic-related travel to and from China. In the U.S., these cancellations add to tension that already exists between the two governments. The U.S. has a large population of foreign students for several reasons, and most of this foreign student population comes from China.

The coronavirus scare threatens to cause long-lasting damage to growing academic exchange programs that reached new heights over the last decade and a half.

The travel restrictions also complicate planning and scheduling for conferences and campus events in the U.S. that scholars from China might attend. 

“That door has been, if not slammed shut, certainly closed for the immediate future,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.

After U.S. officials recommended against nonessential trips to China, several universities limited travel there. This includes Duke, which has an operating campus in China in partnership with Wuhan University, located in the city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak.

Duke Kunshan University closed its campus in Kunshan to nonessential personnel until February 24. The school has also helped students who had recently applied for Chinese residency get their passports from local officials so they could travel home and started developing online learning plans for them.

Two of the 12 confirmed U.S. cases are linked to college campuses. One diagnosis was confirmed at Arizona State University and another at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which stated that the infected student had recently traveled to Wuhan. 

The coronavirus represents and unprecedented disruption for the academic ties between the U.S. and China, shared Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement at the American Council on Education. 

He thought back to the SARS crisis in 2002 and 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome that originated in China killed nearly 800 people. 

“The whole higher education relationship was not nearly as complex as it is now,” Farnsworth said. “We have many, many more students going in both directions.”

Academic collaborations, study-abroad programs, global immersion events, and visits can be rescheduled if the crisis is resolved quickly, but the longer it lasts, the deeper the damage will be.

China sends far more college and university students to the United States than any other country—more than 369,000 in the last academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. On average, the U.S. sends more than 11,000 college and university students to China. These students travel to study in another country with hopes to enrich their higher education experiences by living, studying, and sometimes even working in a foreign culture and environment. Every year, Chinese students and U.S. students look to do the same in each other’s host country. Lately, however, the relationship has been strained by visa difficulties, trade conflicts, and U.S. concerns about security risks posed by visiting Chinese students. 

“This doesn’t help the current situation, which is very tense right now,” Farnsworth said. “This is a low point in U.S.-China higher education relations, there’s no question.”

Huang Ping, China’s consul general in New York, said Tuesday at a news conference that students who returned to the U.S. from Hubei province, which includes Wuhan, should report to health officials so they can be monitored. He urged the international community to work together to combat the illness, saying the “virus is the enemy, not the Chinese.”

The U.S. is not the only country acting quickly. Top colleges and universities around the world are reacting. 

In Germany, the Berlin Free University and Berlin Institute of Technology each said they would not allow visits from China or approve trips to China until further notice. Paderborn University is reviewing China travel plans made by bachelor’s degree and master’s degree candidates as well as their doctoral degree candidates.

A spokesman for Silesian University in the Czech Republic said the school postponed exchange programs for 38 Chinese students. Several other colleges and universities issued similar cancellations. Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno said it was ready to accept 24 students from China who are expected in two weeks.

Tens of thousands of Chinese students enrolled in top Australian universities are stranded in their home country. Monash University has extended its summer break to give college students and university staff more time to return. Classes had been rescheduled to begin on March 2. 

Chinese students studying in the U.S. were already in place for classes when the virus emerged but worries about the illness have led many schools to cancel plans to send Americans to China for an upcoming semester.

At the University of Arkansas, where China has been an incredibly popular study-abroad destination, particularly for business students, about 60 students who had been planning to travel there in May saw their programs canceled. 

The university made the decision a week ago, before students had to make financial aid commitments, and it has been working to arrange opportunities in other parts of the world for the affected students, said Sarah Malloy, the university’s director of study abroad and international exchange. 

Lancaster Richmond, one Arkansas student, had been planning to visit Beijing and Shanghai to fulfill a requirement of her MBA program. Now she is planning to visit Chile this summer instead.

“I was obviously disappointed, but I also understand the university is doing whatever they can in our best interest,” she said. “It made my parents a little more comfortable as well. They’d obviously been following the news.”

Worries about the virus have made changes to rhythms of cam pus life, including cancellations of Chinese New Year events at the University of Akron and the University of Arizona. Many colleges and universities are emphasizing precautions such as frequent hand-washing. 

Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, said the university is monitoring the situation but trying not to be “over the top to the point that we’re causing more concern and fear than is warranted in the community.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolls over 5,500 students from China. Some of its students from Wuhan who traveled home during winter break opted to self-quarantine or wear masks while going to class to protect others. Several institutions urged anyone returning from China to isolate themselves for two weeks as a precaution. 

At Northeastern University, graduate student Lele Luan said that while some fellow Chinese students have taken to wearing masks around campus in Boston, he does not feel the need.

“They told me it’s very safe here,” he said. “So, I don’t do anything special to protect myself.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, the Tang Center for health services tried last week to share tips on managing anxiety about the virus. But it faced backlash for a list suggesting that “normal reactions” might include xenophobia and “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia.”

Asian Americans quickly expressed outrage on social media. The center apologized for “any misunderstanding it may have caused” and changed the wording. 

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