Study Abroad programs return to East Asia

Several GW-affiliated study abroad programs are once again operating in East Asia after international health officials lifted a SARS-related travel advisory for the region. Although no programs have been canceled for the fall semester, program officials reported a significant decline in enrollment, as students wary of traveling to the area have canceled or postponed their trips.

Last semester, the spread of the deadly SARS virus throughout East Asia caused many programs to close shop before students’ coursework was completed.

Seventeen GW students studied in SARS-affected areas last semester, with at least four coming home early, according to Office of Study Abroad statistics.

SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is an airborne virus that has killed more than 800 people worldwide since it first cropped up in China last November, according to the World Health Organization Web site. No new cases have been reported since June.

Mary Dwyer, president of IES, a GW-affiliated study abroad program, said a decision was made to return to East Asia after the WHO rescinded its travel advisory for the region because no new SARS cases were reported after June 11.

She said fall semester matriculation in IES’s East Asian programs has declined by almost 50 percent from last fall.

“People are changing their plans to make sure there’s no risk … they’re just being super-cautious,” said Dwyer, who expects a surge in spring enrollment.

She said that one GW student is scheduled to study in Beijing this fall.

Mark Lenhart, director of CET Academic Programs, which is sending three GW students to China, said enrollment for the organization’s fall programs is down 20 percent. A program in Vietnam was canceled because of a lack of interest.

“We expect a big bounce-back with students deferring to the spring,” he said.

GW Study Abroad Director Lynn Leonard said five students are scheduled to study in China – the most popular East Asian destination for GW students – this fall, down from eight last fall. Information regarding students scheduled to travel to other SARS-affected areas was unavailable at press time.

Several universities, including Duke University and the University of California system, have canceled all of their East Asian programs for the fall semester.

Amanda Kelso, associate director of Duke’s study abroad office, said the decision to cancel its programs came before WHO ended its travel advisory.

“At the time, the WHO still had their travel warnings up,” Kelso said. “Once a decision is made, it’s difficult to turn back.”

She said that while students were disappointed in the decision, many are eager to travel to China in the spring.

“Certain institutions have low tolerance for risk than others,” Lenhart, of CET, said. “Each institution has to make (its) own decision.”

Leonard said GW’s office posts SARS updates on its Web site and communicates regularly with GW-affiliated programs.

“We’re trying to make sure students make informed decisions about participating,” she said. “We encourage folks to get as much information as possible.”

She said each program has a crisis response plan registered with the University, and noted that GW is better able to track its students through its affiliated programs. Last year, GW cited students’ security as one of the reasons for limiting students to using about 200 University-affiliated programs, down from more than 5,000 unaffiliated programs.

“Affiliation does give us more confidence when these surprises happen,” Leonard said. “We’re going to receive very good information about what they’re doing.”

Lenhart said CET programs have adopted stricter policies regarding hygiene in an effort to curb the transmission of SARS, but he would not disclose any safety regulations.

Program officials, while cautiously optimistic that a major SARS outbreak will not happen again, have developed contingency plans to evacuate students.

“If there’s another outbreak, we’d be ready to pull out again,” Dwyer said.

Leonard said some students who were sent packing from China last semester before completing their coursework were able to receive full credit through shortened programs and classes conducted over the Internet.

She said her office was unsure whether every student whose program was cut short received full academic credit because some students have yet to report to the University.

Students are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and are given credit accordingly, Leonard added.

Several East Asian students said SARS did not affect their plans to visit family back home.

“My travel plan was affected not so much by fear of SARS as by fear of any administrative complications in visa and quarantine procedures,” said graduate student Liang Sun.

Professor Young-Key Kim-Renaud, who chairs the East Asian Languages and Literature department, said she decided to visit Korea in June after officials there reported that SARS was all but eradicated.

“It seems that the whole region is under control now,” she said.

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