Feeling safer back home, UNC’s Chinese students ride a pandemic roller coaster

Posted 10/23/20

CHAPEL HILL — Ah, wait a second for the WiFi connection.

NANJING, CHINA — That’s better.

Confused? Well, you don’t know the half of it. The pandemic has turned some Chinese students’ …

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Feeling safer back home, UNC’s Chinese students ride a pandemic roller coaster

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CHAPEL HILL — Ah, wait a second for the WiFi connection.

NANJING, CHINA — That’s better.

Confused? Well, you don’t know the half of it. The pandemic has turned some Chinese students’ college education upside-down. Nonetheless, they are wrapping up midterm exams in the fall 2020 semester at the University of North Carolina, even if a noon class means a midnight Zoom session in China.

For those Chinese students stuck on campus who wish to return home, their concerns include the high cost of airfares, quarantine accommodations and fees, and the availability of technology.

“Although my parents are worried about me, the cost is still too high,” said Yunzhe Qian, 20, of Shanghai, a junior majoring in quantitative biology, who lives in an off-campus apartment.

“Also, since we need to use the VPN for lots of assignments, the internet would be unstable in China. Besides, I have lots of courses in the afternoon, which means that I will need to tackle the time difference if I go back to China.”

Yufei Dong, 19, a sophomore studying information science and journalism, was able to return home to Nanjing, which is 186 miles up the Yangtze River from Shanghai.

“Most of my friends are back in China,” she said, “for I don’t feel the university’s measures have lowered the risk enough for us to return to campus safely.”

According to UNC’s COVID-19 dashboard, positive cases for students topped out at 91 back on Aug. 19, two days after an abrupt shift to online classes, then dropped steadily over several weeks to two student cases on Oct. 15.

Joyce Mei, 19, a sophomore studying statistics and computer science, was also able to return to her home in Wuxi, a city with 3.5 million people known as “Little Shanghai,” which is about 80 miles northwest of downtown Shanghai.

“I think it is great for the university to keep its pass-and-fail policy from last semester,” Mei said. “I have a history course this semester, which made me worried very much. Now it won’t be a problem anymore! Especially since my history course requires lots of in-class discussions, and it is hard for me to participate as well as I would in the U.S. due to the time difference.”

International undergraduate students at UNC will pay a university-estimated $56,476 a year for tuition and fees, health insurance, books, personal expenses and room and board if they are on campus.

They generally do not qualify for federal financial aid and will pay four times what an in-state student pays for tuition and fees ($37,968 versus $9,018) as a “non-resident.” As work rules are restrictive, the university adds, “Therefore, you should not plan to support yourself through employment while at UNC-Chapel Hill.”

Chinese students and their international counterparts paid a different price this summer, suffering a double whiplash.

In July the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security rescinded guidance that had prevented international students on a required F-1 visa from taking full online course loads during the fall semester while in the U.S.

Then on Aug. 17, just a week after the start of the fall semester, the university abruptly announced that it was shifting to all online courses for its 30,000 students after a coronavirus outbreak quickly spread across campus. UNC-Chapel Hill was one of the largest universities in the country to open school with in-person classes.

An estimated 360,000 Chinese students are currently enrolled in schools in the U.S. For these students, their education includes understanding cultural differences, especially during a pandemic.

“In China, the national power is centralized,” Mei said. “The government could control the whole nation and lock down a city when the pandemic becomes worse. The federal government could never do that because of the unique political structure in America.”

She saw something that got her thinking about the importance of freedom in the U.S.

“When the government published the stay-at-home order,” she said, “people chose to protest on the street instead of following the protocol ... In China, people may feel what is the worth of freedom if we lose our lives. Yet in America, people may think what is the worth of life if we don’t have freedom.”

Dong sees a difference on the issue of trust in government and official health organizations like the CDC.

“I feel that Chinese people are generally more willing to conform to government orders,” she said. “You can easily persuade most people to do something with the reason ‘it’s good/necessary for the society/other people,’ even if it’s inconvenient for them.”

Although Qian said she thinks “China is so much safer than in America,” she is willing to take the risk to stay in North Carolina.

The value of higher education, particularly when instruction moves all online, is the topic of conversations around kitchen tables both in North Carolina and in China, and beyond.

The American Council on Education predicted that enrollment will drop 15%, including an expected 25% drop for international students, resulting in a $23 billion loss of revenue for colleges and universities.

Last month, UNC’s public relations office offered this about value: “UNC-Chapel Hill ranks fifth among national public universities for 20th consecutive year. U.S. News & World Report names Carolina Best Value among public universities for 16th time.”

If fear of COVID-19 did not create enough stress, some Chinese students who saw UNC shut down in-class instruction in spring were stuck on campus through the summer.

With limited dining hall options, campus-area restaurants closed and restrictions on cooking in the dorms, one Chinese student expanded his English vocabulary to include a new experience: “food insecurity.”

The turmoil this summer, ranging from visas to pandemic shutdowns, affected students and scholars from around the world, but particularly those from China.

A UNC Global site on 2019 Profiles of International Students and Scholars lists 2,335 international students with 1,049 of them, or 45 percent, from China.

Students from India (281), South Korea (137), United Kingdom (64) and Canada (52), combined, number about half the students from China. After Denmark with 42 students, next on the list is Taiwan with 38 students.

The total number of foreign scholars listed for the 2018-19 school year was 1,360. Of those 601, or 44 percent, came from China.

The pandemic’s impact at UNC includes the postponement of a winter commencement and the loss of the traditional spring break “to limit any potential spread of the virus caused by travel during an extended break,” according to an email to students from UNC’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz.

Instead of Spring Break, students like Qian will get five “wellness days” as breaks, the email said, and “faculty will be instructed to avoid scheduling exams, quizzes and other major assignments on days following these breaks.”

Qian said one reason she decided to study in America was that the U.S. has been a leader in “scientific development in multiple areas in the world.”

“It is worth the risks,” she said. “After all, the Chinese population is many times larger than that in America. The extremely competitive environment and insufficient resources convinced me to study in the U.S.”

Buck Ryan, a journalism professor and director of the Citizen Kentucky Project on civic engagement at the University of Kentucky, taught Ranyi Chu when she was a 16-year-old international high school student in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, in a summer 2016 seminar on English reading and writing. Chu, now 20, is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, studying journalism in Shanghai at Fudan University, one of China’s premier universities, as part of UNC’s “Exchange in China” program. Ryan has been conducting a case study of the Chatham News + Record, which he sees as a model of success for community newspapers here and abroad.


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