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Coronavirus Impacts St. Louis-Area College Students Studying Abroad In China

Katelynn Portell posing with a medical mask in front of a sculpture at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in January.
Katelynn Portell
Katelynn Portell poses with a medical mask at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in January.

The virus that has upended China and caused a frenzy around the globe is affecting students at St. Louis-area colleges who are studying abroad. 

Katelynn Portell, a Lindenwood University-Belleville student, knows about the change firsthand. Portell was a week into her Mandarin-language program in Chengdu, Sichuan, when she had to leave China. Chengdu is a 14-hour drive from Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The company Portell was studying with, University Studies Abroad Consortium, canceled its China programs on Jan. 27. The action affected over 70 students. 

It’s been over a month since the first reported case of the coronavirus and the subsequent outbreak of the respiratory disease. Since that time, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory urging Americans to not travel to China. Airlines, like American and United, suspended flights into mainland China until the end of March, and companies like University Studies Abroad Consortium pulled American students out of Chinese schools. 

The consortium has been sending students overseas for over 35 years, and CEO Alyssa Nota said it has never had to close a program before.

Leaving China

Portell, 22, was leaving the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in January when the local consortium directors told her she needed to come back to campus. Portell said the virus was underplayed by the Chinese media, and her directors monitored American news to stay updated. 

When students were notified they had to leave China, they were given three options: receive a refund, take online classes or transfer to another country. The consortium offered programs in New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay, which had either not started the semester or were only a week into classes. Students had four days to decide.

Portell and 10 other students chose the third option and moved halfway around the world to Uruguay. To date, no cases of the coronavirus have been reported in South America, according to the World Health Organization.

The day after the consortium canceled its China programs on Jan. 28, Nota said every student had an outbound flight booked. Students were afraid of “getting stuck” in China, Portell said. 

Katelynn Portell, second from left, learns to make dumplings in Chengdu along with other Consortium students. Feb. 2, 2020.
Credit Katelynn Portell
Katelynn Portell, second from left, learns to make dumplings in Chengdu along with other consortium students.

Portell said Chinese officials checked travelers' temperatures before allowing them to board public transportation and yelled at people who were not wearing masks. 

Portell developed a cold in the below-freezing weather at Harbin, so while en route to the airport, she was hypervigilant.

“I coughed, and there was this police officer right in front of me, and his neck snapped and he looked at me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap, please don't do anything.’” 

For the rest of the bus ride, Portell held her cough in. At the airport, officials tried to delay her flight, but she insisted on boarding. While in flight, Portell said children and the woman beside her were all coughing. 

Portell said getting back into the U.S. was easy. Three days later, when she landed in Montevideo, Uruguay, still wearing a medical mask, airport employees told her, “Yeah, you don’t need that here,” she said. 

Portell said she is enjoying the change of pace, as she is going from a city of around 14 million to a country of fewer than 4 million people.

Even though she’s in a Spanish-speaking country, Portell gets to study Mandarin. The consortium hired a professor to teach a Mandarin course at the Montevideo host university. However, her professor speaks little English, so Portell said she’ll be learning both Spanish and Mandarin. 

Alert and flexible

Other local universities, like University of Missouri-St. Louis and St. Louis University, have also had to cancel programs. UMSL canceled plans for three students to go on a teaching practicum in northeast China, and SLU canceled three students' trip to Beijing. 

Washington University announced last week that it would be changing the original itinerary for the 38-day summer study abroad for its MBA program. Instead of ending in Shanghai, it will now end in Lima, Peru.

UMSL Education Abroad advisor Cassidy Thompson said a primary part of her job is to monitor the health and safety of all the students in international programs. The university sends 200 students overseas annually, and Thompson said the State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the “best tools” the industry has. 

Overall, Thompson stressed the need for educators to remain flexible.

“Today it's China, it's the coronavirus, but tomorrow, it could be somewhere in Europe,” she said. 

For now, Portell is learning to dance the bachata in a country she did not intend to study in.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake.

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