LOS ANGELES – Study-abroad student Margaret Zheng was vacationing in Taiwan when she learned she had seven days to return to the United States, abandoning her studies in China, because of safety concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Panicked, the 22-year-old Arizona State University senior in biomedicine reached out to friends and family to decide whether to risk returning to China to gather her belongings, or return to the U.S. without them.
Program officials discouraged her from returning for her things, so Zheng flew home to Arizona on Feb. 5. Two days later, she signed a document stating there is no guarantee of recovering her belongings.
Zheng and two other students in the ASU Chinese Language Flagship program students interviewed by Cronkite News said they have not received their belongings or reimbursements for their unplanned flights home. Four Flagship students in Nanjing were affected.
Overall, eight ASU students studying in China have returned home.
ASU students in the Flagship program in Nanjing were told Jan. 29 to leave China due to an increased risk from the novel coronavirus, which had been discovered the month before, according to university officials. Program faculty and staff were not evacuated because they are from Nanjing University, according to the students.
Nanjing, with a population of roughly 8.3 million, is 550 miles east of the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19. The virus, with 80,980 confirmed cases in 50 countries, has killed 2,762 people globally according to the Feb. 26 World Health Organization report.
Flagship is one of many ASU study abroad programs, including summer programs, that were canceled amid safety concerns about the coronavirus. Most ASU students studying in China returned home earlier this month. Flagship did not respond to requests for an interview.
Students enrolled in the Flagship program typically complete it within five years, four years taking classes at the respective state university and one capstone year in China. In the capstone year, students spend one semester, from September to January, taking Mandarin classes in Nanjing and the second semester interning in Mandarin for a company within their chosen field.
Before beginning the second semester, Zheng said, the program offers a break during the Chinese New Year, which typically draws the largest crowds of the year. However, with the spread of COVID-19, things were much different this year.
“During the busiest time in China, it felt like the whole country was empty,” she said. “Usually during the New Year, you would go house hopping and say blessings to relatives but this year, no one was allowed to visit friends or family. Everyone is confined to their homes, and I feel like the country has come to a standstill.”
Zheng was in Taiwan meeting with a friend when she received the Jan. 29 email from ASU.
“The news from our program to evacuate immediately came as an extreme shock, especially since none of us had our things back in Nanjing packed,” she said. “Everything I have is still in my apartment in Nanjing unpacked, and we’re not entirely sure when or if we are going to get those things back.”
Flagship staff started to warn the students in early January to wash their hands and wear face masks as the respiratory virus spread in Wuhan, student Kylie Kennelly said. By the end of January, Flagship students traveling on break were advised against returning to mainland China until the end of February, but airlines began canceling flights to and from China.
The stress of leaving China immediately and the cancelation of the Flagship program left Kennelly worried about her future.
“I personally didn’t feel scared of getting the virus,” the business senior said. “I was worried about how it was going to affect my future plans. It was anxiety inducing because every day we got different news.”
Kennelly said she had dreamed of going to China and completing this program since she was 14 and, although the program did not go according to plan, she is grateful for the experience.
“When I did come back to the States, I realized it wasn’t the best thing to bring up that I just came back from China because it elicits a bit of a fearful reaction from the community,” Kennelly said. “But, in spite of everything, I’m glad I was able to participate in Flagship for the time that I did.”
Another ASU student, Edward Witte, a political science senior, said he was disappointed because ASU is one of only 21 schools that offered the Flagship program.
“Within one week’s time, all of my plans changed,” he said. “That has been the most difficult thing to deal with.”
As concern about the virus grew in China, security increased drastically from the typical security personnel and X-rays for bags in Nanjing, he said.
“After the news broke about the virus, it was starting to ramp up and they had people in full hazmat suits who would take your temperature,” Witte said. “It seemed like it was more difficult to get on the subway than it was to get back to the United States.”
The students still are expected to take a proficiency test for a business level certificate, although they will not be completing their spring semester, Witte said.
“Because there’s going to be four or five months less of language training, I know that myself and some of the other students are concerned we will not be able to meet the threshold for full certification, which is the goal of the program,” he said.