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Chinese Students in US Reflect on COVID Chaos

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Columbia Commencement

Ryan Wang was among hundreds of thousands of Chinese students at U.S. colleges or universities who struggled over whether to return home to China or remain in the United States when the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the spring of 2020.

“When the pandemic started in China [months earlier], I felt lucky I was already back to the U.S. for the new semester,” Wang, a Chinese undergraduate studying economics at Columbia University in New York City, told VOA.

Unlike Wang, many international students had not returned to the United States from winter break in January 2020 and fretted that they would lose credits and tuition fees if they could not get back to school.

For Wang, the concerns centered around whether he could return home to China.

“I had to live through the fear of infection, paying over $10,000 dollars for a one-way ticket, and being scammed by fake ticket dealers before I could go home again,” he said.

Fake dealers were selling bogus tickets to international students desperate to go home after Beijing limited international carriers to one flight a week into China in April 2020. To the delight of his parents, he said, three months after U.S. colleges and universities shut down their campuses and moved all learning online, he finally made it home to Jiangsu.

“It was such a relief. Not only because I [could stop worrying] about securing tickets home, but also that I didn’t have to sanitize everything and worry about COVID-19,” he said. In Jiangsu, a province of over 80 million people in East China that includes Shanghai, there was less reported community spread from March 2020 to June 2021.

Just how many Chinese students sat out the 2020-2021 academic year in the U.S. was revealed this week by the Institute of International Education in its yearly report about international student mobility. The report said almost 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities showed a 15% decrease in overall international student attendance, and a 45.6% decrease in new student enrollment.

Among Chinese students -- the largest percentage of total 914,095 international students in the U.S. -- there was a 14.8% decline from the previous year to 317,299, or 34.7% of all international students. The second largest group from India, comprising 18.3% of all international students, showed a decline of 13.2%.

Engaging students far away

U.S. universities struggled to keep students on track. Like many schools, Columbia University extended its pass-fail policies, which reduced the academic stress of online learning. Wang said the university also provided office and study space in China where lockdowns were lifting, so students could stay engaged.

Others took classes at local universities through exchange programs arranged by their U.S. universities. Xinle Hou took two classes at Beijing Normal University (BNU) through a program called “go-local” through Barnard College, which is the women’s undergraduate institution affiliated with Columbia. Other universities, including New York University (NYU) and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, arranged for their students to attend classes in China as the pandemic abated there, while infections rose in the U.S.

Online learning fail

But not everyone was so lucky. Many students were required to take classes online remotely. [[ https://www.voanews.com/a/student-union_if-its-330-am-it-must-be-time-online-class/6199331.html ]]

Hou, who had attended Barnard in New York City, described feeling burned out, and then “dystopian” from sleep deprivation, trying to attend classes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and then at 8:30 in the morning.

“As I had an online class at night, I did not have much energy to actually go out during the day, which made me feel very detached from the place I was physically living in,” she said.

Florence Chen, an undergraduate student at Columbia University, told VOA that most of her classes were synchronous, meaning students worldwide attended class at the same time, regardless of their time zone. [[ https://www.voanews.com/a/student-union_why-students-go-dark-zoom-classes/6202872.html ]]

“It was truly a suffering to take classes late at night,” she lamented, adding that 3 a.m. was just too late for her.[[ https://www.voanews.com/a/student-union_students-give-online-learning-low-marks/6186962.html ]]

Irene Zhang, who attended Colby College in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine, returned to China during COVID-19. She ended up taking a semester off.

“My college experience was definitely disrupted,” Irene wrote in a text. “I think COVID disconnected a lot of international students to their U.S. institutions.”

While American campuses remained in lockdown, China was opening up, students said. Some studied online and interned in person.

Chen worked a full-time internship while taking online classes in the evenings. Wang interned on weekdays and watched lecture videos intensively on weekends. Most of his online classes, he said, were offered asynchronously, or at his convenience.

“It was arguably the most productive period in my college years,” he said.

Mass return

After more than a year of closures, most American universities have called all their students back to campus. But not everyone feels secure about the pandemic.

“I still don’t feel entirely safe, but I really needed to come back and graduate, as my college does not offer remote options anymore starting this semester,” said Zhang.

“Although many COVID restrictions have been lifted and people wander around, I personally still follow the protocols, which include masking all the time indoors and outdoors, distancing wherever appropriate, eating in my own room, and sanitizing everything,” said Chen. “It’s been kind of sad that I cannot hang out with friends or explore the city since COVID-19 hit. However, I do believe that safety and well-being is my top concern and priority studying in a foreign country.”

US, or else?

After graduating from University of Maryland, Rhine Liu has started law school in Hong Kong. Although she said she thinks U.S. law schools are unparalleled in excellence, her parents want her closer to home.

“Overall, I am very glad for the opportunity to be able to spend my college life in such a culturally diverse environment,” May Ding wrote VOA. “The experience shaped me to become a global citizen with a global vision."

For her part, Hou said she plans to stay in the U.S. and pursue a master’s of fine arts in creative writing. The U.S. has the best resources and opportunities for creative writers, she noted.

Zhang, who is looking at graduate programs in education, also plans to stay in the country as there are “some great programs” that fit her passion.

“If money is not a problem, I believe that all parents may aspire to send their kids for the best education,” Chen noted. “Studying in the U.S. indeed brings a world of opportunities.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Xinle Hou.

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