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How the coronavirus upended international DKU students’ semester

For students at Duke Kunshan University, their semester has been anything but typical.

Classes have been postponed, DKU has extended campus restrictions until Feb. 24 and most students have gone home. On Jan. 21, DKU announced via email the formation of an Emergency Preparedness Task Force made up of university leaders and the emergency crisis team. The task force would “develop an action plan to protect the members of our community and to keep us safe as possible given the uncertainties surrounding the spread of the virus,” the email read. 

Around that same time, DKU first-year Joanna Crane, from Amsterdam, said she came down with a “really bad flu.” For nearly four days she was bedridden with a fever of 102 degrees, and the medicine from the campus clinic wasn’t working. By Saturday—the day that DKU locked down campus and postponed classes—she decided she needed to see a doctor again, but the campus clinic was closed due to the Lunar New Year break.

She called the campus emergency hotline hoping someone could drive her to a nearby hospital in Suzhou. She was told to take a taxi.

“It wasn’t ideal, but, you know, life isn’t ideal,” Crane said. 

The concern that she had contracted coronavirus had crossed her mind, but Crane said it was very unlikely since she hadn’t ever been to Wuhan or been in contact with someone who had.

She spent a Saturday night in the hospital, and her fever was down to 100 degrees in the morning. By Tuesday, she was on a flight back to Amsterdam. 

After the classes were postponed, initial excitement quickly turned dark. Mia Meier, a first-year from St. Louis, was cooking pasta when the administration postponed classes. She had heard from a friend that there would be an announcement about delaying classes on Saturday night, but no one knew exactly when it would arrive. 

By this time, Meier said, many students and faculty had already left for the Lunar New Year break. She estimated only 150 students were left on campus. Meier was supposed to be traveling in the city of Nanjing with friends, but at the advice of many of her Chinese friends, she had canceled her trip earlier in the week.

The email came out around 7 p.m., and, in addition to delaying classes, the message said DKU would cover $1,000 in flight expenses for international students. There was an “initial euphoria” in the room, Meier said, when people realized this meant no classes and a free flight out of China.

“Because we’re from abroad, our first instinct is to travel and seize those opportunities,” Meier said of herself and her international friends. 

But the mood quickly soured when she and her friends considered the implications for students who had family in China. Meier said she found one of her floormates crying uncontrollably in the hall Sunday night. “She was so overwhelmed with fear,” Meier said. “The initial high crashed very quickly.”

Some students were afraid to go home for fear they would somehow be responsible for starting a coronavirus outbreak in their home countries—some of which would not have strong enough health care infrastructure to handle such an outbreak. 

“That was so sad, heartbreaking, to witness,” Meier said.

At first, it was unclear whether the $1,000 travel aid was just for students who had already left campus and were traveling or if every international student was eligible. Meier said she and her friends were preparing to hunker down and wait it out on campus. 

It took more than an hour to sort out the confusion with the administration over China’s popular messaging app WeChat. Eventually, students started calling parents and booking tickets home.

Charlie Colasurdo was already in Hong Kong during break when DKU postponed classes on Saturday night, and the first-year from Westport, Conn., wasn’t surprised by the news.

“I think a lot of us kind of saw it coming at that point,” he said. “We felt it was necessary in terms of the uncertainty regarding the virus. I think we were all happy to see it.” 

Instead of finishing out the week in Hong Kong, Colasurdo decided it would be safer and more comfortable to wait out the crisis at home with his family. “I'd rather be home than anywhere else,” he said. 

He spoke to The Chronicle from the Seoul airport, where he was awaiting his connecting flight home.

When asked if they thought DKU responded adequately to the crisis, the students said that the university took the necessary steps to protect students and to make sure everyone stayed safe on campus. For example, the masks that the university provided were an even higher protective grade than what the government was requiring at the time, said Aryan Poonacha, a first-year from Bangalore, India.

“If it were to somehow spread to campus that would be totally disastrous, especially if we were all still there,” Meier said. “They couldn’t risk it.”

Poonacha agreed that it was better to err on the side of caution. 

“I feel that it's been an appropriate response to take such extreme measures as DKU has,” he said.

All four students are now at home with their families. 

Colasurdo believes DKU’s response to the coronavirus will only strengthen the program and its reputation. Evacuating campus, instead of locking it down and quarantining students, shows prospective students that DKU can effectively respond emergencies and get people home to their families. 

“It sets a good precedent for the future,” Colasurdo said, “and in a way it will make us more resilient.”

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