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Coronavirus Concerns Weigh On Chinese Students At U.S. Colleges


Even in this time of tension between the United States and China, almost 370,000 Chinese students are enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. Naturally, many travel back-and-forth between the U.S. and China, and now some are triggering fear because of the coronavirus that has been spreading out of China. Charles Ledford of WILL reports on Chinese students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

CHARLES LEDFORD, BYLINE: Here at the University of Illinois main campus, there's a long history of enrolling Chinese students dating back more than a century. The school boasts more than 10,000 international students - about 5,800 come from China. That's among the largest enrollment of any university in the country.

There are numerous support networks for these students. In fact, more than 800 were expected to attend a gala last weekend celebrating Lunar New Year, but it was canceled over concerns about the coronavirus. Those concerns are affecting campus life in any number of ways.

Joy Zhu is studying accounting as a sophomore here and is one of about 150 students from the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first detected. She recently returned to campus after spending winter break at home with her parents. Her flight back to Illinois left Wuhan just one day before Chinese officials quarantined the city.

JOY ZHU: Just after I get back to school, my Chinese friends, they all just ask me, like, how did you escape from that horrible city?

LEDFORD: Zhu was offended by that characterization of her city and by the notion that she was an escapee from it. But as hurtful as the comments were, there were more to come.

ZHU: Most of my friends are Chinese people. And from the last semester, my friend who has cars, they will be willing to provide me a ride to school. But at the first week, I came back from Wuhan and they sent me the message and said, you will be better if I can, like, go to school by myself these two weeks because they're also afraid of coronavirus. So for these two weeks, I just go to school, take class, and go home by myself. And I just avoid talking to people or have connection with them.

LEDFORD: Kevin Tai is a junior here. He was born in China and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 10. He's seen an increase in tensions between Asian and non-Asian students on campus recently.

KEVIN TAI: There is a huge difference in this semester than the other semesters. People who are not from China in the U.S., they have kind of the fear against people who are wearing masks. And I also see this kind of separation within the Chinese community as well.

LEDFORD: Senior Madelyn Foster says she's also noticed that difference when riding the bus last week and observing two Asian students sharing a granola bar.

MADELYN FOSTER: Then these two guys behind me, one of them like knocked into his friend, I guess, and he said, hey, look, they're literally passing the coronavirus back-and-forth between the two of them.

LEDFORD: Comments like that have led to a sense of ill-ease among some Chinese students here and that's amplified by social media back home. Some parents in China are using WeChat to criticize the University of Illinois for not doing enough. Robin Kaler disagrees with that criticism. She's associate chancellor for public affairs and says the university has been proactive.

ROBIN KALER: As soon as we learned of the coronavirus, the university began planning and determining how best to protect our university community. The director of our student health center sent a note personally to all of the students from Wuhan, and then later as the area expanded, has reached out to more students to let them know the resources that are available, and to ask them to either mask if they're going to be out or self-quarantine, and to work with them if they need assistance at all.

LEDFORD: Joy Zhu says she's grateful to the university for its help and guidance. And while she continues to attend classes, she also worries about her parents back in Wuhan and calls them every day to check on their health.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Ledford in Urbana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Ledford