Since she was a high school senior four years ago, Sophia Newman had been building towards her year abroad as a college senior. In a matter of weeks, what should have been the culmination of her college career became a rush to escape back home.
In high school, Newman saw her older sister go through the Chinese Flagship Program at Hunter College. She saw her Mandarin skills improve as a result of the intensive language instruction at Hunter, as well as from cultural immersions in China. Going into college, she knew this was the path she wanted. “That was my anchor,” she said. “Everything was planned around Chinese Flagship.”
The academic timeline of a Chinese Flagship student typically builds up to a capstone year of study at a Chinese or Taiwanese university. When it was Newman’s turn to go abroad, however, the experience was abruptly cut short over concerns of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in China.
In her first three years of attending Hunter College, she completed a major in economics, and two minors in accounting and math. With this schedule, she could finish her capstone year and Chinese major while still graduating with her peers.
Following her first semester of study at Nanjing University, Newman secured an internship for the spring, and put a down payment plus two months’ rent on an apartment in Shanghai. She then used her winter break to visit family in Singapore. There, she received a series of increasingly urgent emails from her program coordinator.
The first one arrived on Jan. 10, warning her cohort of an “unknown viral pneumonia outbreak” in Wuhan, China. It cited 59 cases reported by Wuhan officials, and recommended basic health precautions. Two weeks later, another email informed them of travel restrictions to Wuhan city and the surrounding Hubei province. Three days after that, they were told the start of the spring semester would be delayed for three weeks. Two days later, on Jan. 27, Newman woke up to the distressed cries of her roommate. They were to “evacuate” to the U.S. no later than Feb. 5.
Another Flagship student, Angela Chi, recalled the anxiety of receiving abrupt and rapidly changing news during this time. “We were checking our emails all the time,” she said. “And sometimes they would send them at 2 or 3 in the morning because they were in America… We would just hit refresh, refresh, refresh.”
Chi was in Nanjing, China, when she received the Jan. 27 email, just a few days before President Trump instituted a travel ban from China. On Feb. 2, just a few hours before the ban was to take effect, she had to navigate the mayhem of an airport adjusting to new rules in addition to a growing epidemic.
A couple minutes before boarding their United Airlines flight, the passengers on her flight were notified that only U.S. citizens were allowed to fly. The change of plans led to outraged travelers and an hour delay while they removed their luggage.
Through the chaos, Chi still considered herself fortunate to have traveled from Nanjing. She was able to pack up her apartment and say goodbye to a few friends. Most of her peers were not able to do that, because they were traveling in Japan, Spain, or in Newman’s case, Singapore.
Newman left for the U.S. from her grandmother’s house with only the belongings she packed for a two-week trip to Singapore. She arrived in New York winter without an abundant jacket or a sense of closure.
The emails didn’t stop after they came back home. On Feb. 5, the spring semester was officially canceled, and students were given the option to defer their internships to the following fall semester, or graduate without it. Both Chi and Newman chose to graduate.
“I was really considering going back in the fall,” Newman said. “I really wanted that internship and that experience of living in Shanghai, and living on my own…but that’s just very idyllic.” She wants to start working and doesn’t think her job offers, in China or America, are going to wait for her. “I would love to go back, but it just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
The main goals of the Capstone year are to attain “superior-level proficiency” according to benchmarks designated by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, as well as to gain professional experience through completing an internship abroad.
According to Bing-Ying Hu, the program coordinator of Hunter College’s Chinese Flagship Program, “students coming back are considered to have good standing, and will still complete the exit proficiency assessments.” “As for the internship portion,” she said, “that unfortunately cannot be duplicated.”
The purpose of the exit assessments is to certify that the students have reached a certain benchmark proficiency. Under normal circumstances, using Mandarin Chinese in an internship would ensure that the students are practicing daily. Without the cultural immersion, the students are worried that their certification is in jeopardy.
“I was told that we could have online tutoring until the end of this semester,” said Chi. “But after I decided I wouldn’t defer my second semester to the fall, [Nanjing University] told me I couldn’t get tutoring because I was no longer their student.”
Though it seemed like an end for the Nanjing capstone students, there remained unfinished business in Nanjing. Newman had left her belongings in her apartment after the lease was up, as did many of her peers who were also abroad during winter break. It wasn’t until mid-March that she received a call from her old teachers at Nanjing University.
Through a video call, her professors pointed to each of her belongings and asked her if she wanted to have it mailed back to America, or thrown out. “They asked me [in Chinese], ‘Do you want this? Or this?’ and I said ‘Yes! Yes! I want everything!’”
Beyond the emotional experience of watching her personal possessions packed from afar, not everything can be practically mailed back home. In a few weeks, her professors will call again and sort out items that cannot be sent by air. Newman expects her items to arrive in New York sometime in May, or later.
For the seniors, the past few weeks have been a time of grieving. “It’s been a really sad time getting over the fact that that opportunity is not going to happen,” Newman said. “It’s been really distracting.” She has been trying to keep busy and look for jobs, but has found the “emotional turmoil” taking her focus. “This is everything I’ve been working for, for a really long time,” she said.
For a program that emphasizes study abroad, the Nanjing University cohort was not the only group affected by the global pandemic. “Due to the situation in America,” said Hu, “NSEP and CUNY have decided to ask the [Taiwan Capstone] students to return.” (NSEP stands for the National Security Education Program, which funds the Language Flagship.)
The Flagship program’s second-years, who were expecting to go abroad this summer, also see their plans in limbo. Jakub Goclon, a sophomore in the program, applied to Princeton in Beijing, but now isn’t going.
He applied for the summer program in mid-January, just as the first reports of what is now known as COVID-19 were coming out. “I figured it wasn’t going to leave China and it’s going to be gone by the time summer comes,” he said. “That wasn’t true.”
Two months after he was accepted to the program, some critical details were adjusted. On March 4, Chih-Ping Chou, the director of Princeton in Beijing, sent an email to all the accepted students. “The outbreak of COVID-19 in China has made it impossible for us to hold our 2020 session in Beijing,” it said. “We are working to arrange a substitute program at a site near Princeton, NJ.”
After hearing the news, Goclon withdrew from the program, citing cultural immersion as one of the key reasons for his decision. He opted for a newer program that the Hunter College Flagship Program set up in conjunction with National Yang-Ming University of Taiwan.
On Thursday, March 26, the Flagship sophomores were notified that this Taiwan program was also canceled. Hu emailed the entire cohort, informing them that “the Language Flagship decided to suspend all overseas programming for Summer 2020, and will not be able to support Flagship students for overseas study this summer.”
This is likely due to the rapidly growing situation in the U.S. The disease’s new epicenter is New York State, where COVID-19 cases make up nearly half of the nation’s total cases, and where Governor Andrew Cuomo has enacted a strict lockdown that closes non-essential businesses.
As for Newman and Chi who have already had their lives turned upside-down because of this virus, returning home to the exact situation they escaped from is frustrating. “When I first got back I had issues sleeping,” said Chi. “I was always anxious and always checking my emails, and my mom would wake me up and tell me news about the coronavirus.”
Since then, she’s adopted a more optimistic view. “I think I’ve moved past the anxiety,” she said. “I know it’ll get better. In time.”