BYU Chinese Flagship students return home because of Coronavirus

Hikers watch the sunset from the Purple Mountain in Nanjing. (McKay Christensen)

BYU student McKay Christensen and his friends were in Hualien, Taiwan, getting ready to go to the beach when they heard the news.

Students were keeping track of the coronavirus while traveling for a study abroad in China. Over time, the virus had become more threatening and the students’ safety was at risk.

The Chinese Flagship foreign study and internship program — both at BYU and across the country — was canceled the last week of January, requiring all student participants to be back in the United States by Feb. 5.

“It kind of put a damper on the whole day, but we still went around and saw everything,” McKay Christensen said.

McKay Christensen stands in front Heaven’s Door on Tianmen Mountain. (McKay Christensen)

Flagship Center Director Matthew Christensen said he wasn’t surprised with the decision to close the program considering the Coronavirus’ growth. However, he and Managing Director Rita Cortez worried when one student was having difficulties returning to the United States.

“He was a BYU student whose flight was canceled a couple times,” Matthew Christensen said. “He was having a hard time getting out. So finally, we just advise(d) him ‘Just fly anywhere you can outside of China and worry about getting a ticket into the U.S. after that.'” Eventually the student was able to get a flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Unlike his classmate, McKay Christensen was outside China when asked to evacuate. He had also planned on returning home to visit family before his internship, so he already had a plane ticket. When recalling his classmates’ experiences, one word he used to describe the ordeal was “ridiculous.”

“For my classmates, they had to jump on and buy plane tickets as soon as they could,” McKay Christensen said. “There were a lot of airline carriers that were canceling tickets out of China, so there were a lot of people that had their plane tickets switched around three or four times before they finally got back to America.”

McKay Christensen describes the worries his family had about the Coronavirus in this audio clip.

Because the majority of the Flagship students were traveling outside of China, they had to leave many of their belongings at their apartments. McKay Christensen lamented over the expensive rock climbing equipment, camera lens and drone that were left behind.

Dexter Murray, a BYU senior majoring in Chinese, and his wife also had to leave many of their belongings in China. They said it was unsafe for their teachers in China to go to the students’ apartments to retrieve belongings and send them back to the U.S.

“We came back to Utah each with just a backpack that had a swimsuit and snorkel and warm winter clothes,” Dexter said. “So, we got back to Utah with almost nothing.”

Program directors Matthew Christensen and Cortez said they are doing what they can to help remedy the issue for students who had to return to Provo early.

Difficulties students are facing go beyond just missing their belongings. Cortez said many students are living with family and commuting long distances because they couldn’t find housing near campus. One couple, Cortez noted, was traveling between Salt Lake and Springville or Spanish Fork where the wife’s parents live.

“They’re kind of just staying with both sets of parents until they figure it out and what they’re going to do next,” Cortez said.

Though the students and directors dealt with a lot, student safety remained the directors’ first priority.

Because they were always updated on the students’ locations and because of the emergency plans that had already been set up, the Flagship program’s cancellation was smooth and not frantically implemented, according to the directors.

Though students like McKay Christensen are safe, they continue to worry about their friends in China. He expressed concern for his friends and their family in Wuhan. He also addressed the negative stereotypes that have come from the suspected origin of the virus.

“I don’t think that’s the way we should be handling our brothers and sisters over in China,” McKay Christensen said. “I feel like I’ve seen a lot of pointedly racist comments and pointedly attacking comments on China and their culture in the last couple weeks. Nobody should be attacking or pointing or laughing when somebody else is in pain.”

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