ASU students describe chaotic return from China due to coronavirus

Mar 1, 2020, 11:01 AM | Updated: Mar 9, 2020, 12:04 pm

ASU students Kylie Kennelly, Edward Witte, Margaret Zheng and Ryan Featherston visit Sun Yat Sen Ma...

ASU students Kylie Kennelly, Edward Witte, Margaret Zheng and Ryan Featherston visit Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, China, before their study abroad program was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Zheng)

(Photo courtesy of Maggie Zheng)

LOS ANGELES – Study-abroad student Margaret Zheng was vacationing in Taiwan when she learned she had seven days to return to the United States, abandoning her studies in China, because of safety concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Panicked, the 22-year-old Arizona State University senior in biomedicine reached out to friends and family to decide whether to risk returning to China to gather her belongings, or return to the U.S. without them.

Program officials discouraged her from returning for her things, so Zheng flew home to Arizona on Feb. 5. Two days later, she signed a document stating there is no guarantee of recovering her belongings.

Zheng and two other students in the ASU Chinese Language Flagship program students interviewed by Cronkite News said they have not received their belongings or reimbursements for their unplanned flights home. Four Flagship students in Nanjing were affected.

Overall, eight ASU students studying in China have returned home.

ASU students in the Flagship program in Nanjing were told Jan. 29 to leave China due to an increased risk from the novel coronavirus, which had been discovered the month before, according to university officials. Program faculty and staff were not evacuated because they are from Nanjing University, according to the students.

Nanjing, with a population of roughly 8.3 million, is 550 miles east of the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19. The virus, with 80,980 confirmed cases in 50 countries, has killed 2,762 people globally according to the Feb. 26 World Health Organization report.

Flagship is one of many ASU study abroad programs, including summer programs, that were canceled amid safety concerns about the coronavirus. Most ASU students studying in China returned home earlier this month. Flagship did not respond to requests for an interview.

Students enrolled in the Flagship program typically complete it within five years, four years taking classes at the respective state university and one capstone year in China. In the capstone year, students spend one semester, from September to January, taking Mandarin classes in Nanjing and the second semester interning in Mandarin for a company within their chosen field.

Before beginning the second semester, Zheng said, the program offers a break during the Chinese New Year, which typically draws the largest crowds of the year. However, with the spread of COVID-19, things were much different this year.

“During the busiest time in China, it felt like the whole country was empty,” she said. “Usually during the New Year, you would go house hopping and say blessings to relatives but this year, no one was allowed to visit friends or family. Everyone is confined to their homes, and I feel like the country has come to a standstill.”

Zheng was in Taiwan meeting with a friend when she received the Jan. 29 email from ASU.

“The news from our program to evacuate immediately came as an extreme shock, especially since none of us had our things back in Nanjing packed,” she said. “Everything I have is still in my apartment in Nanjing unpacked, and we’re not entirely sure when or if we are going to get those things back.”

Flagship staff started to warn the students in early January to wash their hands and wear face masks as the respiratory virus spread in Wuhan, student Kylie Kennelly said. By the end of January, Flagship students traveling on break were advised against returning to mainland China until the end of February, but airlines began canceling flights to and from China.

The stress of leaving China immediately and the cancelation of the Flagship program left Kennelly worried about her future.

“I personally didn’t feel scared of getting the virus,” the business senior said. “I was worried about how it was going to affect my future plans. It was anxiety inducing because every day we got different news.”

Kennelly said she had dreamed of going to China and completing this program since she was 14 and, although the program did not go according to plan, she is grateful for the experience.

“When I did come back to the States, I realized it wasn’t the best thing to bring up that I just came back from China because it elicits a bit of a fearful reaction from the community,” Kennelly said. “But, in spite of everything, I’m glad I was able to participate in Flagship for the time that I did.”
Another ASU student, Edward Witte, a political science senior, said he was disappointed because ASU is one of only 21 schools that offered the Flagship program.

“Within one week’s time, all of my plans changed,” he said. “That has been the most difficult thing to deal with.”

As concern about the virus grew in China, security increased drastically from the typical security personnel and X-rays for bags in Nanjing, he said.

“After the news broke about the virus, it was starting to ramp up and they had people in full hazmat suits who would take your temperature,” Witte said. “It seemed like it was more difficult to get on the subway than it was to get back to the United States.”

The students still are expected to take a proficiency test for a business level certificate, although they will not be completing their spring semester, Witte said.

“Because there’s going to be four or five months less of language training, I know that myself and some of the other students are concerned we will not be able to meet the threshold for full certification, which is the goal of the program,” he said.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

Editorial members of the Austin American-Statesman's Austin NewsGuild picket along the Congress Ave...

Associated Press

Hundreds of journalists strike to demand leadership change at biggest US newspaper chain

Journalists at two dozen local newspapers across the U.S. walked off the job Monday to demand an end to painful cost-cutting measures and a change of leadership at Gannett, the country's biggest newspaper chain.

17 hours ago

(Unsplash Photo)...

2 young children hospitalized in critical condition following crash in Glendale

Two young children and a total of five people were hospitalized in critical condition Monday following a multivehicle crash in Glendale.

17 hours ago

(Facebook Photo/Quantá for AZ)...

Quantá Crews selected to replace Flavio Bravo in Arizona House

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Quantá Crews on Monday to replace Flavio Bravo in the Arizona House.

17 hours ago

File phot of the back of a Phoenix, Arizona, police officer. The Phoenix Police Department unveiled...

Kevin Stone

Phoenix Police Department unveils strategic plan to reduce crime

The Phoenix Police Department on Monday unveiled a strategic plan that takes a community and victim-centered approach to reducing crime.

17 hours ago

Booking photo of Raul Perez Ochoa and a file photo of a Gilbert Police Department cruise. Ochoa, an...

East Valley massage therapist accused of sexual offenses

An East Valley massage therapist accused of sexual offenses was arrested last week, and police are looking for more possible victims.

17 hours ago

Stock image of a Fourth of July fireworks display. The Fabulous Phoenix 4th fireworks show and Four...

Kevin Stone

Boom, it’s back: Fabulous Phoenix 4th fireworks show returns after 3-year hiatus

The Fabulous Phoenix 4th fireworks show and festival is returning this year for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the city announced.

17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Here are the biggest tips to keep your AC bill low this summer

PHOENIX — In Arizona during the summer, having a working air conditioning unit is not just a pleasure, but a necessity. No one wants to walk from their sweltering car just to continue to be hot in their home. As the triple digits hit around the Valley and are here to stay, your AC bill […]


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

How to identify the symptoms of 3 common anxiety disorders

Living with an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and cause significant stress for those who suffer from the condition.

ASU students describe chaotic return from China due to coronavirus