On Wednesday, March 11, everything at Baylor went as usual. Students took classes, participated in the after school activities, and went home or to the library in the evening planning for their coming weekend and Spring Break like any other day. On Thursday afternoon, boarding students were unexpectedly dismissed from the last class and told that Baylor was transitioning to distance learning.
The international students, especially Chinese boarders, were a particularly special group. At the beginning, they were the center of the coronavirus topic at Baylor. Up to the transitional point, they were the group with the toughest choices to make. Their dilemma was to go home or to stay in the U.S. in hopes of returning to campus. If you knocked on any Chinese boarder’s room on Thursday night, they were likely calling their parents at that moment. To go home or to stay was the most urgent impending choice for the international students to make.
It was not a simple yes or no question as neither choice was especially appealing. Staying in America would mean facing the danger of the rapid and invisible spread of the virus and also some people with unfriendly attitudes. Since China began dealing with the coronavirus, Chinese around the world have been facing discrimination. The masks and cautious attitudes brought more discrimination, preventing them from safely equipping themselves.
On the other hand, going back to China meant 14 days of quarantine with policies turning harsher and harsher every day. In addition, some Chinese people oppose receiving the studying-abroad students back because of the potential carrying of virus. School work is also an important factor for consideration. As the immigration office stipulates that the F1 student visas automatically expire after the visa holder stays for more than five months outside of the U.S., many are worried about the potential troubles when they come back for schools after the pandemic. The time differences and Chinese firewall can also hinder students from engaging easily in distant education.
Tickets were expensive and not very accessible, but could be arranged by being willing to layover at a third country. Generally, the first group who made the choices were the seniors, and most chose to go home. Making sure that Baylor would deal with their visas and knowing that their senior prom and graduation are nearly impossible, seniors packed up their stuff (normally, they have more than a week to pack in May) and left the past all behind. Candice Xie '20 purchased a ticket on Friday, safely arrived in her home city two days later and started her 14-day quarantine. In contrast, juniors mostly chose to stay at first, holding out hope of continuing their school work and taking scheduled AP and SAT tests in May.
The number of Chinese boarders had started to dwindle by the second morning. After 3 p.m., the campus started to become the world of international students, as the day students left and many domestic boarders went home. On the lonesome campus, the Chinese boarders and boarding faculty proved to be sources of light for each other in the social darkness. Mafia, a group strategic game and a regular social activity for the Baylor Chinese community for years, was played one final time on Friday night, since the minimum required number of the players for the game were around on Saturday. For the seniors, this might be their last mafia game with other Baylor people. According to Rex Zhu '20, the number of participants was unusually large in the last game. At the end of the game, Jacky Song '20 expressed his gratitude for all other players and confess that he enjoyed the last game a lot.
On late Saturday morning, organized and inspired by senior Charlotte Wang, the remaining Chinese boarders (pictured above) took photos together. The intention of this small activity was to repair the losses of two biggest photo-taking activities due to the virus: Prom and Graduation. The photographer was the famous Baylor artist Steven Yao '21. The students dressed like they were going to prom, taking photos of the whole group, particular ensembles, and groups of friends (see more photos below). Mavis Wang '23 said, "It is such a pity that my freshman year ends in such a hush, and I am sad that I do not have a chance to see all our senior sisters in their most pretty prom dresses. But I am still glad that we have such a chance to say goodbye so decently to each other.”
In the afternoon, Baylor provided rides for the students to go to the Walmart and buy whatever they need for their trips back or their remaining days at Baylor. During the shopping trips, students were all masked and stuck with each other; the former protected them from the virus, and the latter allowed them to protect each other from any emergency. One emerging tradition was “heritages,” those who left food, ingredients, and sterilizers for those staying, a show of love in the difficult time of the coronavirus.
The world was changing every day at a surprising speed, at least for the Chinese boarders. Every day, returning home became harder as the situation in America changed, quarantine policies in China changed, and more and more flights were cancelled. After the second Wednesday since the campus closing, the pressure of living and school work came at the same time.
Baylor provided dorms for the students waiting for flights or unable to return home. And Mrs. (Jean) Lau brought the remaining students Chinese food from time to time. When this was written, there were still five students staying on the campus. Some due to the harsh situation at home, such as Irene Chen '21 from Wuhan, and some due to the difficulty of purchasing tickets. All of the students, currently in the U.S. or outside of U.S., are taken care of.
Those that did go home, experienced a 24-hour-plus trip that was much like the Dunkirk evacuation. Wearing masks and gloves almost the whole time, they did not even dare to eat on the plane. Because of varied processes, the travel dragged on for longer than usual. They spent four hours, even 12 hours at the airport after landing, which normally took them not even half an hour. After leaving the airport, most of them were sent to a hotel for 14 days of quarantine. It was their responsibility to contribute to the containment of virus in their homeland, as their home embraced them in this turbulent time.
Remarkably, the Baylor faculty provided solid support for this group of people. Mr. Conner and Mrs. Haynie (Dean and Associate Dean of Residential Life Garrison Conner and Takisha Haynie) communicated with the government about the visa issues of students, enabling students to go home without extra worries. The boarding faculty buttressed their "dorm children" in multiple ways, providing rides, helping with plans, inviting to dinners, and preparing cookies for their travel. Zoe Xie '20, commented: “I have communicated with many friends around the country, and I found out that Baylor already did a better job than my friends’ high schools or even universities. Some schools even required all the students to leave the campus within two days, but we know it's hard to get a plane ticket which enables you to leave within two days.”
Students back in China were also having a harder time finishing their schoolwork as myBaylor and Outlook were not accessible in China for a long while, and texts, YouTube, Facebook, and Google were blocked. Some study websites, such as Mastering Chemistry and Khan Academy, are accessible but not quite useful because of its running speed in China. The time difference between Chattanooga and China often disabled them from group discussion and extra help opportunities.
Again, Baylor offered much support. MyBaylor and Outlook were fixed within two days and teachers began posting recordings of classes rather than live-teaching for the students. Because of international students’ crazy and tiring travelling schedule and depressing and harsh quarantine situation, faculty provided moderate extensions to allow the students to take mental breaks. Interestingly, some teachers even created WeChat groups to better communicate with them, as traditional group chatting apps, such as GroupMe, are not effective in China. Mary Ma '20 has two class WeChat groups, one is Mr. (Adam) Weaver’s multi-variables calculus, and one is Ms. (Ruth Ann) Graham’s AP French.
Dr. (Elizabeth) Forrester pointed out early that this is a global battle which we face together as mankind. Since the first international students arrived at Baylor, they and Baylor have demonstrated a symbiotic relationship. Baylor shelters these brave young men and women who leave home early to pursue their future, and these students also shape the Baylor culture to become more open and global-minded. This emergency has been a testimony to this relationship, as Baylor exhibits its inclusive care for our international students, and these young students display courage and independence. As Dake Peng '21 says, “We are not afraid of the predicaments; we face them with smiles.”