Students from China worry from afar The emotional toll of COVID-19 at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies

Lotus Chen and Kelly Huang | Photo by Joe Livernois


Story and photos by Joe Livernois

Lotus Chen’s parents are still in quarantine in their rural village outside of Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Hubei province of China. But Chen, a student in Monterey, says her parents are mostly worried about her, about the reaction of Americans, because she is from China at a time when COVID-19 has so deeply impacted free trade and the collective psyche in the Western Hemisphere.

“My parents are afraid I will encounter discrimination,” said Chen, who attends the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. She said her parents are worried that the U.S. response to COVID-19 won’t be as effective as it has been in China, and that she might become infected while in Monterey.

She and a friend, Kelly Huang, were having lunch at the Samson Center on the MIIS campus earlier this week, talking about their families and about how it feels to be 6,500 miles away from home at a time when their families and friends are dealing with the coronavirus.

“I think it’s under control right now,” said Huang. “The numbers are going down.”

Later, in an email, Huang said that even as the virus has been brought under control, “there is still a long way to go. Most Chinese people are working or studying at home now, which reduces the opportunity to get exposed to the virus. However, once everyone is back to work or school, whether things will (get) worse again remains a question so far. Imported cases from other countries (are) also a concern.”

Huang is from Guangzhou, about two hours west of Hong Kong. She has been a MIIS student since May. She visited her family during the university’s winter break and returned in January, just before the outbreak and before the United States imposed restrictions on flights from China.

When Huang returned to Monterey, she and other newly arrived Chinese students were “encouraged” by MIIS administrators to remain in quarantine for two weeks. She was able to participate in classes via the computer meeting program Zoom.

The coronavirus is forcing administrators at places like MIIS to take extra precautions.

“We’re a little nervous about this,” said Jeff Dayton-Johnson, dean of the institute and vice president for academic affairs at Middlebury.

Last week, Middlebury officials at headquarters in Vermont announced that the private university would no longer support travel for China to students, faculty and staff through the end of the summer, due to the Centers for Disease Control Level 3 travel notice.

At Monterey, students from abroad make up about 40 percent of the student body, and the majority of those international students are from China. At the start of the new semester in late January, university officials urged Chinese students like Huang, who had recently arrived from winter break, to “self-isolate.” Systems were established to allow them to study remotely, Dayton-Johnson said. The campus advisory was lifted two weeks later, after officials determined that none of the students had contracted the virus.

Officials at UC Santa Cruz are also keeping a close eye on the spread of coronavirus. No cases have been reported at that campus, but Lisa Ehret, director of emergency management at UCSC, issued a memo to students and staff late last week to say that they are prepared.

A quarantine protocol for residential students has been prepared, she said, and university officials have established a “quarantine space” for students who are unable to go home. In addition to a private bedroom, students will have meals delivered and medical professionals will check in with them periodically by phone. Ehret said students with respiratory symptoms and fever will be “triaged” in a separate area at Student Health Services, and that testing for COVID-19 will be coordinated with local health officials.

Earlier last week, University of California President Janet Napolitano expanded restrictions on nonessential, university-related travel to South Korea, Italy and Iran.

Meanwhile, Dayton-Johnson at MIIS said the school is monitoring the situation carefully.

“We do worry about spring break,” he said, especially since many students travel abroad during the break. “On the other hand, they may not be able to get out of the country by then. Travel could be difficult.”

Huang said she recently canceled plans to spend her spring break in New York.


Lotus Chen and Kelly Huang | Photo by Joe Livernois

Chen and Huang both said they have generally felt welcomed in Monterey. But, like Chen’s parents, they are worried about the perceptions of the natives. One Chinese student at Middlebury reported that someone in town had recently directed some “negative” comments about “Asians” at him. Word of the incident spread quickly among the Chinese students.

“I had never encountered that sort of situation while I’ve been here,” said Chen, who has been attending Middlebury for almost two years. “I didn’t expect that.” Chen, who said she is “in her 30s,” is an International Policy and Development student. Huang, 23, is studying Translation and Localization Management.

Over lunch, the friends talked about the likelihood that U.S. citizens would be willing and able to remain in quarantine like the people in China. They said they believe the restrictions on movement in China have likely slowed the spread of the virus, but those restrictions might be more of a challenge in the United States. Chen said that roads in and out of her parents’ village have been sealed. The Chinese government is delivering food and supplies to the village, she said. Her brother, an engineer, is unable to work because he is in quarantine but his company is paying him a minimum wage during the lockdown. Chen wonders if the U.S. is able to provide similar amenities if it faced a similar crisis.

Huang also noted that response to the coronavirus was aided by the “young generation” in China that has “an acute awareness of social issues and (that) have access to more resources, partly because of social media … In this case, for instance, more young people bought and wore masks before everyone else in China realized the importance of wearing masks.”

Both Huang and Chen said the initial reaction to the coronavirus in Wuhan was slow; information about the virus and its impact was difficult to find. But after the severity of the consequences were known, officials in Wuhan were fired and the Chinese government established 16 new hospitals to handle the epidemic.

As of Tuesday, more than 80,000 cases of COVID-19 were treated in China and almost 3,000 deaths were reported. Almost 118 cases of the coronavirus strain have been reported in the United States, with nine deaths.

Back in Monterey, Dayton-Johnson said the concerns haven’t impacted the number of applications MIIS’s Monterey campus is receiving from prospective students. “We watch the applications every day,” he said. “They’re important to us because we are a tuition-driven institution. The applications we are getting from China for our language programs next fall are very strong.”

And Huang said the outbreak has provided “an opportunity for us to reflect and examine ourselves.” She noted that Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist from China, has urged that China raise its profile with the Centers for Disease Control.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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