Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Global Affairs Canada’s advisory to “avoid all non-essential travel,” UBC Go Global has cancelled all current and upcoming student programs.
In an internal email sent on March 16 by UBC Student Safety Abroad, students on exchange were advised “to return home, wherever that may be for you.” According to the email, UBC can support students with travel reimbursements, provide assistance in booking travel and “explore the academic accommodations that are available.”
“All students have been told to come back to Canada or return to their homes,” said UBC Media Relations Director Matthew Ramsey in an interview with The Ubyssey.
“Approximately 340 students have been affected. All students who remain in China are Chinese nationals who have chosen to remain. Before the travel advisory on March 14, we had previously asked 15 students in Italy, 3 in the Czech Republic, 42 in France and 46 in Spain to return to their homes.”
Ramsey added that UBC would reimburse any costs incurred by changing flight dates and that Go Global staff worked with students who could not afford to book flights or had other difficulties on a case-by-case basis.
“UBC first emailed us on March 6 to tell us they were monitoring the situation and then after a few emails, they told us clearly to come back,” said Alexa Wenzel, a third-year international relations major who was on exchange at Sciences Po, Paris.
“Luckily, the UBC exchange community was close so we could all talk and decide on our actions.”
Wenzel mentioned that although the situation was “frightening,” it was helpful that UBC offered flight reimbursements and gave more time to decide compared to American universities.
"I got contacted pretty early on, at the beginning of February, at which time there [were] a few hundred cases of the coronavirus in China and [UBC Go Global] said they were monitoring the situation," said Sally Lin, a fourth-year political science and human geography student.
Lin completed an exchange program at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University during the Fall 2019 semester and was planning to continue studying at Peking University in Beijing over the course of the Spring 2020 semester.
“This slowly escalated to asking that we not travel to the affected provinces and then to asking us to leave China,” she said.
According to Lin, students on exchanges had constant contact with Go Global staff members who were monitoring international news and travel advisories, as well as responding to student concerns about safety.
“The responses were very clear and concise. They gave us the options of deferring our exchange to another semester or choos[ing] to cancel the exchange experience,” said Lin. “Because at that time in early February, it was only in China and seemed like it might be contained — the third option was to wait outside of China until it was safe to return for the semester.”
Although Wenzel and Lin compared UBC Go Global’s response favourably with that of other North American universities, both acknowledged the challenges and the anxiety of having to move out quickly in a rapidly evolving situation.
“For me, my choice was to take back more of a sense of control by deferring [the second term of] my exchange experience instead,” said Lin, noting that her graduation would be delayed as a result.
Despite all the complications, Wenzel said she “loved her exchange experience in Paris and would love to have stayed” under different circumstances.
Lin echoed, describing her overall exchange in China as “very rewarding and very eye-opening.”
“I want to emphasize that at least in this case, we have the choice to leave because there were students in China who couldn’t leave and this was their reality,” she said.