EAP students return from China

Forty-three University of California students returned from China last week after the university suspended its Education Abroad Program in Beijing following the increasing outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in the region.

One student has decided to stay in Beijing, and as a result has withdrawn from the University of California, an EAP spokesperson said.

UC officials say they have been monitoring SARS’s progress since March, but decided to suspend the program in mid-April because of an increase in cases, the recent severity of SARS symptoms in persons under age 60 and the “”faint rumblings of government cover-ups”” regarding the reported severity of SARS. A professor at Peking University, one of the EAP host universities in Beijing, had also been recently diagnosed with the disease.

“”We had communications with two UC staffers, both of whom felt that the situation had deteriorated to the point where they no longer felt it was safe for the students to remain,”” said EAP spokesperson Bruce Hanna.

UC officials notified students enrolled in EAP Beijing on April 17 that they were to decide whether or not to leave immediately — within one day. The university asked that students sign and return the “”Education Abroad Program Suspension Agreement,”” a document outlining the costs and benefits of a student’s decision to stay in or leave China.

Students choosing to leave China without delay per University of California’s request were promised to be awarded two-thirds credit for their coursework that semester pending final assignments, free health care in the United States for 90 days and the shipping of belongings back to the United States free of charge among other benefits. Upon arrival in the United States, students were to contact their UC campus immediately regarding coursework.

However, students were also presented with the option of staying in Beijing, but would have to withdraw from the University of California, forgo any UC financial aid or travel insurance and rely on the host university to award any credit.

“”Essentially, the students understand that by staying in China, they are withdrawing from the program, which, this particular semester, is their link to being enrolled in the University of California,”” Hanna said. “”Effectively, they are disenrolling from the program by staying.””

One student, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate Eric Fong, decided not to leave Beijing, costing him his status as a student of the University of California.

Fong currently stars on the national television program “”Sports English.”” According to UC Irvine undergraduate and EAP Beijing participant Nathan Jones, Fong decided to forgo his UC status because of promises he had made with the show’s producers about filming. Jones, who also starred in a national television show in China, called “”Mission Possible,”” was forced to make a decision between keeping his promise to his program’s producers or leaving the country at the request of EAP.

Jones said that his decision to leave Beijing was less about remaining a University of California student as it was about the financial aid funding he would be forced to pay back if he were to be kicked out of the university.

“”In the end, my decision wasn’t based on the threat that I’d be kicked out of UC, but the fact that I’d lose $7,000 to $8,000 in financial aid,”” Jones said. “”They said I’d essentially have to pay back all of the financial aid I had received for the semester if I stayed.””

John Muir College junior Reid Barret, who had studied at Beijing Normal University before leaving on April 25, said the window of less than 24 hours to decide whether or not to leave made him feel “”overly pressured.””

Barret and Jones both contend that it was difficult to gather information from the EAP directors regarding the program’s status, as the SARS epidemic evolved in the month’s leading up to the university’s decision to suspend the Beijing program. Further, the primary EAP director for Barret and Jones’ group had been replaced in February by a professor emeritus from UC Berkeley, John Jameson. According to Barret, Jameson was traveling between Hong Kong and Shanghai while directing, and would only spend a few days in Beijing every two to three weeks.

Hanna says that Jameson was also involved with EAP in Hong Kong and that other UC officials were available for information in Beijing.

According to UC officials, no EAP students have been diagnosed with SARS, a disease that has gained notoriety worldwide for its recent expansion throughout East Asia. As of April 30, almost 1,500 cases of SARS had been reported and about 9,000 people have been quarantined because of the disease.

Hanna said the University of California continues to monitor local conditions related to the SARS outbreaks in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, where EAP programs remain open.

Since 1962, more than 40,000 UC students have enrolled in EAP. Currently, more than 4,000 UC students are studying at 140 institutions in 34 countries.