SARS hinders study abroad

Four GW students studying abroad in China recently returned to the United States after their study abroad programs were cut short amid fears of the potentially deadly SARS virus. Several East Asia programs organizers said they are also considering canceling summer and fall programs.

Officials said 12 GW students are studying in China despite SARS fears.

GW-affiliated programs, including the Counsel on International Educational Exchange and the Counsel on International Education, canceled their East Asian programs for the remainder of the spring semester, said Courtney Goike, a GW Study Abroad coordinator.

SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, has spread throughout Asia since it first appeared in China last November. Although the World Health Organization said several Asian countries have successfully contained the spread of the disease, China is still struggling to cope with thousands of infected citizens.

As of Wednesday, 372 people had died from the disease, while an additional 5,401 were infected worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

The Institute for the International Education of Students, a GW affiliate, already canceled its summer 2003 program in Beijing. Michael Steinberg, executive vice president and director of academic programs for IES, said a “final decision” on whether IES will hold its fall semester in Beijing will be made by July 1.

“One member institution has made the decision not to allow students to go to China,” said Steinberg, who declined to identify its name. “I see that as premature. If we felt that there wasn’t a good chance that (SARS) can be turned around, we wouldn’t go ahead with the semester.”

Steinberg said IES has seen an increase in applications for the China program for the fall.

Five GW students are scheduled to study in Beijing with the IES program either next fall or for the entire academic year, Steinberg said.

However, Goike said students have expressed concern about the disease’s impact on travel and logistics.

“Some GW students abroad in Chinese programs that haven’t been cancelled or suspended have indicated to (the study abroad office) that they may take a voluntary withdraw and return,” Goike said.

She said the Office for Study Abroad keeps track of the spread of SARS in East Asia and follows updates and statistics on the disease with other college administrators on a Yahoo Group Web site. The site allows study abroad coordinators to keep up to date with the latest information on SARS and study programs in China.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued interim travel alerts for China, Singapore and Vietnam.

Goike said that while China is the most popular destination in Asia for students, there are no students currently studying in Singapore or Vietnam.

Some students said SARS would not have any impact on their travel plans to East Asia, despite the disease’s continual spread.

Freshman Jeff Valentine said he plans to travel to China this summer.

“(My parents and I) looked at how many people live in China and how many people have actually died from SARS, and I think the benefits of going, for me, outweigh the risks,” Valentine said. “That’s not to say that I’m not going to take precautions, but if it stays the way it is now and does not get worse, I’m still comfortable going.”

But Valentine said “a lot” of friends he made in China are not returning to Beijing because of SARS.

Professors have also had to curtail plans to travel to East Asia because of SARS.

Linda Yarr, executive director of GW’s program for international studies in Asia, said a conference she was supposed to attend in Shanghai in May was postponed until October.

“(SARS) is an issue in the planning of our program when we send professors to teach international relations in China, Vietnam and Laos,” Yarr said. “Those who have been selected to travel are watching the situation closely. It is not entirely clear whether or not it is practical to go.”

Some Chinese students said SARS would not deter them from going home this summer.

Graduate student Xiaohi Zhai said students who are planning on returning to China after they finish the semester have not altered their arrangements but remain concerned about the disease.

“(The GW) Chinese community is more worried about SARS because we have family and friends in China,” Zhai said. “People are nervous and have no idea about how long the crises will last. I call (my family) every day to make sure they are safe.”

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