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How coronavirus has personally impacted Duke student, professors

When the coronavirus emerged in late 2019, no one knew the ramifications. Almost two month into 2020, an ominous haze of ambiguity still enshrouds the pathogen.

As the weeks unfold, the virus continues to spread, having sickened about 77,000 people and killed over 2,400 in China alone as of Feb. 23.

The virus has also impacted Duke affairs, from students to faculty and staff. Not only have Duke students received emails from Student Affairs that detail travel restrictions and required self-isolation, Duke has also had to relocate the Duke in China summer program, cancel conferences and physically close Duke Kunshan University. 

Here are stories of how coronavirus has personally impacted one Duke student and two Duke professors.

Shari Tian

First-year Shari Tian is a Chinese-American student from Chantilly, Va.

Before coming to Duke last fall, she and her parents began planning her four undergraduate years. She hoped to major in statistics, fulfill pre-med requirements and study Mandarin one summer through Duke in China. She had planned to go to China this year and save the following summers for research and internships. 

“I was really looking forward to the program especially because I have family over there since I’m Chinese-American,” she said. “The last time I actually went to China to visit them was when I was eight. My grandmother and aunt come to America to visit us, but I basically didn’t get to see the rest of my extended family for 10 years.”

During class registration for the Fall semester, Tian made sure to sign up for a Chinese language class because she knew she would need to complete a year of Mandarin to participate in Duke in China. Her course plans were set given her interests in statistics, medicine and Mandarin. 

Tian remembers the Duke in China application opening in November. She submitted the form before the new year and was accepted soon afterward. 

“Right around that time was when the coronavirus started to really blow up,” she said.

She didn’t think much of it at first—she assumed the virus would be long gone by summer. 

“Everyone soon realized that was not going to be the case,” she said.

As the virus progressed, the accepted Duke in China students received an email saying the program would be relocated to a not-yet-specified North American location. Tian was disheartened. The program was quite expensive, and the greatest draw had been the cultural immersion promised.

Now, Tian plans to stay in Durham for the summer. She said that she’s thinking of knocking out her Organic Chemistry II requirement. She wants to spend one summer in China in the future, but she’s not certain of any specifics yet. 

Kang Liu

Kang Liu, professor of Asian and African languages and literature, has been a professor of Chinese studies at Duke since 2003. Liu’s professional interests include Chinese public opinion, popular culture and political changes. 

Most years, he spends about nine months in Durham and returns to China for academic breaks.

But this spring, he was slated to teach his first two courses at DKU: one on modern Chinese political ideology and the other on Chinese media and popular culture. DKU’s academic calendar operates on seven-week sessions rather than semesters. He’d teach during the fourth session starting on March 15. 

“So I came to China Dec. 10. My wife is here in China, my son is here in China,” he said. He was conducting some political research in China, and he planned to stay in the country before the academic session.

“All of a sudden, this virus erupts. I was thinking about whether or not I would go back to the U.S.,” he said. 

The DKU administration encouraged him to return to the U.S. if it would make him more comfortable. He wouldn’t need to stay in China as he could offer his courses online. 

But when Liu checked the airlines, he couldn’t find a feasible flight.

“All of the commercial airlines between the United States and China—the big commercial airlines like Delta, American, and United Arab Emirates—they’re all canceled. And we’re not sure whether we want to take the risk of traveling at this point,” he said.

So Liu decided to remain in Nanjing with his family. The capital of Jiangsu province, Nanjing lies between Wuhan and Kunshan. He stays in his apartment most of the day, often doing research just as he would in Durham.

Liu is grateful for the DKU administration’s cautious, thoughtful response to the virus. He mentioned a “warm and substantive” email from Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis that included information on lodging, airfare, transportation and health insurance.

Liu doesn’t fear contracting the virus, but he has been avoiding enclosed structures like shopping malls. Every couple days, he leaves his apartment and bikes to the supermarket.

“There (are) a lot of people there. It’s a little bit crowded. Everyone wears masks,” he said.

Carlos Rojas

Carlos Rojas, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, teaches classes in Chinese cultural studies, gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, and arts of the moving image at Duke.

Although Rojas teaches in Durham, he visits Asia eight-or-so times a year. Those visits range from a quick weekend trip to longer summer engagements. He took a sabbatical in Taiwan last spring.

This year, he had many trips on the calendar, including the second annual undergraduate workshop for the Humanities Research Center at DKU, of which he is the co-director. 

It would have been held the second weekend of Duke’s spring break. They had booked some keynote speakers and encouraged undergraduates from China, Asia and Duke to apply. They even planned to pay for some of the attendees’ travel.

“We had no choice,” he said. “We’re not holding it.”

He notices the coronavirus is prevalent now, but he doesn’t anticipate it will last long.

“It seems very, very likely that logically it’s going to follow the same trajectory as SARS or H1N1. By April, May, it’s going to start to recede,” Rojas said. “These, they tend to spark in the winter months. There’s no reason to think that this is going to be a major health problem in the summer.” 

Rojas still hopes to travel to Asia this summer, but he’s already had to alter some of his plans. He had been asked to help with a Duke in China program review, but that review won’t occur given the relocation. 

His penciled-in plans include presenting at a comparative literature conference at Soochow University and serving on the jury for a literature prize in Hong Kong.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the policy decisions that are being made and the way that people are extrapolating from those policy decisions to a kind of paranoid reaction. It puts the situation out of proportion,” Rojas said.

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