As spring break approaches, the COVID-19 outbreak has introduced numerous uncertainties in the College community and beyond. According to an all-school email issued by Wellesley College administration on Mar. 1, community members are advised to reconsider or postpone their international travel plans. The College also urged all students, faculty and staff who do not postpone their trips to register any work-related or personal travel in the College’s Travel Tracker.
The statement came nearly a week after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) warned schools and businesses to expect severe disruptions from community spread of the virus.
“We want to assure you that we are developing plans to address the possibility of a longer-term disruption,” wrote Provost Andy Shennan, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources Carolyn Slaboden and Dean of Students Sheilah Horton.
The statement also noted that all College-funded or -sponsored travel to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy would be prohibited and that personal travel to these countries is “strongly discourage[d].” These countries are classified as Level 3, or severely affected, according to the U.S. Department of State. Additionally, community members who do travel in these areas would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return. The College also warns against travel to Japan, a Level 2-designated country.
The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was first detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019. As of Mar. 3, over 93,000 have been infected globally and 3,168 have died. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 29, which constitutes “a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and potentially requires a coordinated international response.” 118 cases have been reported within the United States, including one in Norfolk County, MA and a UMass Boston student. Nine people in the U.S., all in the state of Washington, have died.
A number of study abroad and exchange programs were cancelled, affecting 11 students, said Jennifer Thomas-Starck, director of the Office of International Study (OIS). Two of the three students who had planned to study in China were able to return to Wellesley; one opted to switch into a now-suspended program in South Korea. Five Wellesley students in Italy and four in South Korea were also impacted.
“The coronavirus outbreak is a rapidly-developing and fluid situation … The College is closely monitoring developments and changes in advisories and restrictions, and communicating with our international partners and students,” Thomas-Starck said.
Impacts on study abroad programs
For Michelle Shen ’21, the semester at Seoul National University (SNU) and summer internship with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights was her chance to become fluent in Korean and learn to live in a city she considered returning to after graduation. But Seoul, Korea’s biggest city, became a ghost town as the COVID-19 outbreak spread.
As the situation in Korea worsened and other U.S. universities began withdrawing their abroad students, Shen grew worried that Wellesley would do the same. On Feb. 27, she received an email from Thomas-Starck informing her and the two other Wellesley students at SNU that all programs in South Korea had been suspended and they would need to fly back home immediately.
This upended a number of plans for Shen, who says she is now being forced to take an involuntary gap semester. She responded to Thomas-Starck’s email, illustrating a number of concerns and asking if there was any way she could stay. After all, nearby Yonsei University was using online courses to reduce person-to-person contact, Shen wrote.
But as the College could not support travel to South Korea while the country was designated Level 3, Shen was told to come home. “Pursuing online or other options at SNU will not be possible,” Thomas-Starck responded.
Losing the semester at SNU means Shen risks dropping her East Asian Language and Culture (EALC): Korean major. An English and EALC double major, she was set to finish the equivalent of Wellesley’s third level of Korean language credit. Without it, she would have been unable to take the fourth level and complete the major.
“I’ve been working towards it for a long time. There’s a lot of options I can take, but it’s not the same in the sense that it messes up the plan that I so meticulously wanted,” Shen said.
The College is offering full tuition reimbursement to the affected students, as well as reimbursement for non-refundable housing payments and ticket change fees.
To Shen, it does not feel like enough, although she recognizes that there may not be much more the College can do.
“I don’t even know what kind of support I would want even if I could receive it,” she said.
Wellesley also promised to set up for students independent study courses with Wellesley faculty and recommended affected students to make up courses at the Wellesley summer school, according to an email Shen received on March 3.
“In the previous email it had been said Career Ed would make contingency plans, but now they’re suggesting we take summer classes,” said Shen, who noted that her summer internship plans conflicted with the dates of the summer program.
Shen returns to her home in Michigan this Wednesday, where she will spend the first two weeks back in quarantine. Being back in the U.S. brings another set of fears, said Shen.
“I’m definitely more scared of the American public. There have been so many stories and cases of anti-Asian sentiment, students like me who are treated poorly or even assaulted,” she said. “I think it’s a lot scarier to go back to that right now.”
Impacts on summer internships
Other students have had to change or reconsider their plans for spring and summer break. Kiara Liu ’23 planned to participate in the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies (KCJS) Summer 2020 Modern Japanese program, a two-month summer program that allowed students to skip the 201 and 202 Japanese language classes.
The program will be held in the Kyoto Prefecture, where there have been three confirmed cases. The organizers sent out an email to participating students on Feb. 28 about the potential risks and acknowledging that all deposits would be refunded if the program was cancelled.
“My parents are extremely worried… [and] I’m worried about general safety,” said Liu.” “ “If the situation gets worse, I probably won’t go.”
Katie Christoph ’21, who is currently studying in Germany, said that she has had to cancel many of her travel plans outside of her host country. Thomas-Starck had sent out an email to all abroad Wellesley students on Mar. 1 advising them to limit international travel.
“I can’t risk travel restrictions being imposed on me at any time and jeopardize my place in my abroad program while everything is so unpredictable,” said Christoph, who cancelled plans to Italy last week. “What’s unfortunate is that I can’t receive refunds for my flights, so I’m out a bit of money.”
Vivian Zhang ’23 and Etta Chen ’23, international students from Xi’an, China and Guangzhou, China, respectively, originally planned to fly back to their homes during spring break. However, Chen was informed two weeks ago that Hainan Airlines had canceled her flight, and Zhang’s flight with AirChina was unable to be booked.
Chen decided to fly to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit friends instead, but after San Francisco declared a state of emergency on Feb. 28, Chen worried that traveling to California could put her at risk. The SF Chronicle reported that at least 43 have been diagnosed and over 8,000 are in quarantine in California alone, with 26 cases centered in the Bay Area.
“My parents don’t want me to go because they think that [California] is not safe,” said Chen. For now, she has taken precautions for her trip, including purchasing N95 masks and hand sanitizer.
Other students from California say that their parents have expressed similar concerns.
“My parents are trying to convince me not to travel back to California for spring break,” said Hailing Ding ’23, a student from Irvine, California. “So far I’m still pretty set on going but it depends on how the whole thing plays out in the following weeks.”
Earlier this week, Alyssa Robins ’22 posted in the class Facebook pages asking for recommendations for local New England-area outings. She is hoping to connect with other students whose travel plans have changed after she cancelled her trip back home to northern California, where the first cases of community spread in the U.S. emerged.
“It’s certainly not comparable to other parts of the world but I talked about it with my parents and it would be nerve-wracking to travel for a week,” Robins said.
Further into the future, returning home for summer break is an uncertain possibility for many international students.
“Looking at the current circumstances, it might not be possible,” said Chen. “I’m worried I may have to stay in Boston for a longer period of time.”
However, Zhang remains optimistic.
“I don’t think there will be any problems about flying back in May,” said Zhang. “I just bought my ticket for summer break.”