Edited by Rui Cheng and Daniel Mikesell
Trigger Warning: The following article includes material that discusses mental health issues and loss. Resources are provided at the end of the article. Reader discretion is advised.
China finally reopened its border to international travelers on January 8th after adjusting its COVID containment policies. It is the most thrilling news that all HNC students and faculties longed for during the pandemic. The HNC, as one of the most international educational institutions in China, was faced with numerous challenges brought about by “Zero-COVID” policies in these three years. Although the HNC kept running its community as much as it could, the silent and semi-closed campus lost its charm and was unable to nurture the “human bridge” to connect young Chinese people with the rest of the world. Since the Chinese New Year, everything has been getting back on track as China lifted its COVID regulations stage by stage. There are no more lockdowns, quarantines, or regular COVID tests right now. There are around 40 international students from the U.S., Mexico, France, Vietnam, and Israel at HNC now. Students eventually escaped from the helpless Zoom rooms to the campus at Nanjing. Face-to-face and real-time connections are bringing back the vitality of the HNC.
As these challenges subside, what do they mean for the HNC community? It is noteworthy that worldwide students at HNC shared a common struggle during the COVID era as they sought to understand, help, and encourage each other. Amidst these challenges, how did students’ mind frames evolve? In light of the subtle and solid relationships built among students during the pandemic, there is a potentially far-reaching impact on international relations.
Part I: Do you regret choosing the HNC? — “I spent a bunch of money just for this virtual program?”
Viewing education solely as a commercial service is a rather pessimistic perspective, but this perspective is frequent among HNC students whose experiences suffered during the pandemic. Interestingly, the motivations for choosing the HNC vary between Chinese and international students. For international students, the appeal of the HNC lies in the language environment, cultural exchange, and opportunities to stay in China, none of which Zoom classes could replicate. Several international students gave up the certificate program or chose to postpone their master’s program. Chinese students, MA program students particularly, on the other hand, view HNC as a pragmatic choice: they are largely influenced by societal pressures to improve job prospects or further their education, and they are not able to take leaves of absence. While some regretted choosing the HNC, others appreciated the flexibility of remote learning, which allowed them to balance remote courses and internships.
Despite the difference in motivations, the HNC community members now in Nanjing all cherish their time with others. After a rather long period of online courses, even with a small number of hybrid courses, students got tired of studying alone and a lack of community. Laura shared that, “Emotional comfort and support from in-person communication and activities boost my confidence and help me find the energy to enjoy my life at the HNC.”
Overall, choosing the HNC was an awesome choice for students who were able to return to campus. What’s more, those arduous experiences shared among students have a far-reaching influence on people-to-people Sino-U.S. relations.
Part II: Advocating for improved mental health services at SAIS — “Did you get the email from SAIS Dean Jim Steinberg?”
As the Zero-Covid policy was still active at the time, many international students were unable to join the HNC community in Nanjing. SAIS offered an alternative: study virtually at HNC while being physically situated in Taipei. This would allow them to experience the Chinese culture and language as closely as possible. However, being distanced from all SAIS campuses and being fully virtual introduced a whole host of problems for this group of students.
The initial batch of international students who went to Taipei as a transitional program faced immense difficulties in getting visas, booking flights, enduring weeks of quarantine, finding accommodations, going for medical examinations, etc.“I strongly suggest an open conversation about this. It seems students have misunderstandings on why we moved to Taipei at first, and why not straightly fly back to Nanjing. That’s just a compromise for making it to Nanjing at that time. Stressful that period was, luckily I made it to Nanjing, finally.”Mark said. Additionally, students in Taipei had to enroll in credit courses at Taipei University to fulfill visa requirements.
Apart from these academic challenges, students in Taipei were coping with a personal loss: the passing of Nicholas Lindblad in November 2022 was an unprecedented tragedy for HNC classmates and friends. Li, who shared a course with Nicholas, expressed, “My tragic worry and fear stuck once I received the email, particularly since Nicholas and I shared a class, and we had chatted about some course questions on WeChat just three days before that email came to my attention…Except for a couple of emails, no more official mental health care showed up.” Li continued that SAIS didn’t provide any details about the nature of his death. Some felt that the information provided by the school was extremely limited. “Luckily, we have a kind teacher who lectured that course, kept greeting us every class, and found solutions for alleviating stress for us.”
Alongside SAIS’s minimal response to Nicholas’s passing, the HNC community observed little support from the official side towards mental health resources or community grieving opportunities. HNC students voluntarily initiated a virtual memorial with the support of Nicholas’s family members – an event available for HNC students and friends from all SAIS campuses to participate in. But, largely, these students felt they had to deal with this newfound and painful personal challenge alone. Mark added, “Besides, we had a really tough time there. We just figured out on our own, in most cases, there is no real HNC office in Taipei, and we had nowhere to ask for help.”
The lack of convenient, timely, accessible, and proactive mental health care poses a significant obstacle to students’ well-being and overall experience at SAIS. There is a pressing need for more mental health care, especially for HNC students, because mental health resources in China are extremely limited. It is necessary to divide responsibilities between Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University to intervene for international students and Chinese students promptly when there is a public tragedy.
Part III: Fast-spreading affection and precious community support — “I have medicine, feel free to fetch.”
Shortly after China announced its 10 newest guidelines for easing Zero-COVID policies on December 7, a horrible and fast-spreading wave hit the HNC. The HNC was forced to announce an emergency evacuation on December 19th to all students at the Nanjing campus. Students who already tested positive had to quarantine until turning negative at the campus to avoid spreading the disease outside campus, while those who had not been infected were to go home as early as possible to avoid getting stuck in Nanjing during the spring festival.
Shortage of staff was the biggest challenge at that time, followed by the closing of the cafeteria, cleaning, and library services. Chinese co-director Cong Cong and other members of the faculty devoted much care and resources to sick students. For instance, Professor Zhao Shudong, almost 70 years old, tried to connect with the cafeteria to prepare chicken soup for students to recover quickly. Professor Paul Armstrong-Taylor donated COVID-kits and medicine and also helped students fetch food and packages. There were around four or five international students on campus at that time, all of whom actively took risks to help Chinese students who were affected for the first time. A strong sense of community emerged through this coordination and kindness between students, staff, and faculty. Those shining and warming moments made the arduous COVID time more precious for students at the HNC.
Undoubtedly, these moments reflect a promising future for people-to-people relations between China and the outside world – a stark contrast to today’s complicated international relations. If current HNC students ascend to high ranks in business, government, or international organizations – not a crazy notion, given that the current U.S. Ambassador to China is a SAIS alumnus – the trust engendered by this goodwill and cooperation may enhance constructive engagement.
Part IV: Embrace self-care and community life — “Cherish what we have and the people we meet.”
Notwithstanding the fracturing of the HNC community during the depths of the pandemic, efforts were made to improve the situation. During the lockdown period, the HNC hosted several hotpot parties in the cafeteria, and Banwei – student leaders who organize student life and activities – held events both online and offline to alleviate students’ depression. Now the HNC is full of vitality and energy again. Many students who successfully arrived at Nanjing have tried hard to seize their days in the HNC. This semester, Banwei and faculty members organized amazing students activities, including a happy hour, a hot pot party, Hogwarts role-playing games, mountain hiking, sightseeing touring, calligraphy practice, table tennis practice, Erhu class, lounge movie nights, Women’s Day message board, and so on. There are also a variety of lectures, including academic exchanges, trend sharing, job-hunting counseling, and mental health lectures.
Alumni who completed their entire HNC education without the vibrant HNC community want to re-experience a more complete HNC life. HNC students who never had a sense of real community lacked the abundant events and activities that could have brought them together. Now that the three-year COVID-19 epidemic has become history, we need to open up our minds to reach out to people in the HNC community. Cherish what we have and the people we meet.
Sincere thanks to our volunteers who cordially shared their thoughts on this topic. For confidentiality, no real names were used in this article. If you experience any mental health problems, please seek psychological counseling as necessary. Learning some coping methods from a therapist could benefit your whole life. In addition to formal counseling, there are numerous ways for you to take care of yourself, including talking to a trustable person, going to the park for a walk, doing exercise step by step, and reading novels. Whenever you take action, please remember to impart positive feedback of your own, for instance, by writing a positive note, treating yourself to ice cream, or leaving time for a nice, long bath.
Please see the information below for more information if you need mental health support.
JHUSAP: 443-287-7000, option #1. (24/7)
NJUXLZX: (025)83597219;(021)89680355 (workday, 8:00-21:00, China Time)