Amy Tang ’24 begins discussing Aristotle at three in the morning.
She speaks with classmates in her Directed Studies philosophy seminar — though they are 12 hours and an ocean away.
Tang lives in China and hoped to come to New Haven for the fall. Since June, Tang has visited the U.S. Embassy’s booking page each day. She first scheduled an appointment in August, which the consulate canceled. Now, her appointment is set for Jan. 19. But even if she gets her visa then, she will have to quarantine in another country for 14 days, missing the Feb. 1 start date for the spring semester.
With increasingly icy relations between the U.S. and Chinese governments, students from China hoping to study at American universities have faced obstacles getting the F-1 visas they need. Currently, around 300 Yale students are stuck in China, according to Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis. About 40 of these students are undergraduates and the remainder are graduate and professional students. Though students in China are not alone in their struggles to get visas, the U.S. government has lifted restrictions for many other nations, but has kept them for China even as the public health situation improves.
“That’s created a situation where we have a bunch of students more or less stranded in China,” Lewis said. “Some of them might not want to come anyways … but I think a lot of them — it’s just that they’re waiting for visas.”
The U.S. banned foreign travelers from China on Feb. 1 and instituted travel bans for non-Americans in Europe on March 13. In May, the government banned travelers from Brazil.
As the public health situation improved in Europe, U.S. officials made exceptions and granted visas to European students studying in the U.S. But still, Lewis said, the bans against travel from China and Brazil remained. In Brazil, case numbers have surged. Now, more than 5.2 million people have been infected. But China has largely brought the virus to heel, Lewis said, indicating there may be political motivations for keeping up the ban.
In recent years, relations between the two world powers have worsened. The Chinese government has been widely criticized for authoritarian measures — including restricting free speech, cracking down on protesters in Hong Kong and persecuting the Uighur ethnic minority.
U.S. President Donald Trump has recently ramped up attacks on China. He has repeatedly blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic, attempted to ban Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat and accused the nation of stealing intellectual property. In a speech last May, Trump said the U.S. would bar “certain foreign nationals from China” from entering America.
“It’s a little bit odd because China has the virus pretty well under control but the consulates haven’t opened up again,” Lewis said. “So one suspects that this isn’t just about public health, if you know what I mean.”
In an email to the News, a U.S. State Department spokesperson wrote that American educational institutions have elevated the U.S. as a global leader in research and emerging technologies and fields. The openness of the nation’s academic environment is crucial to its success, they said.
However, the spokesperson added that the government of the People’s Republic of China has “systematically exploited” the “inherent vulnerabilities” in the openness of the United States.
“The United States is the leading innovator of next generation technologies, and Beijing is co-opting PRC academics and students in the United States to steal trade secrets,” the spokesperson wrote.
Lewis acknowledged that some people related to Chinese institutions have illegally taken information from U.S. universities, but argued that these instances are the exceptions, not the norm. Most people applying for the F-1 visas are law-abiding students who simply hope to study in the United States, he said.
Students have struggled to schedule meetings to get visas at the few U.S. consulates in China that have reopened since the pandemic began. Even those who have planned the appointments have reported that the consulates have canceled their visa meetings without cause.
Some students still in China have faced logistical challenges.
The Yale School of Public Health had a cohort of students who planned to come to New Haven in August at the start of the school year, YSPH Dean Sten Vermund said. But the U.S. consulates in China delayed the visa appointments for months, forcing the students to defer studying at YSPH or begin their studies online when they wanted to learn in person. Vermund teaches a class at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. For the students in China, it begins at 5:30 in the morning.
According to Jingchu Lin ’24, these circumstances compelled students who did not want to go through a remote semester to take a gap year.
If the circumstances do not allow her to fly to the U.S., Tang is struggling to decide between taking a gap semester or continuing the year remotely. She faces an exceptional situation as a Directed Studies student.
“Since Directed Studies is a one-year program, it would be difficult to take a remote semester.” Tang said. “There were proposals about offering courses during the summer or during the second semester sophomore year. I don’t think the solutions are feasible for me though.”
Lin admitted that he continues to feel the challenges of loneliness and isolation. He added that he was struggling to find a community that understood his challenges at home.
Tang, however, found a community in Shanghai because of these struggles. She said she felt disappointed by the cancellations at first, but after learning that students in the area were also facing the same challenge, she formed a study group with Chinese students from other U.S. universities who were also forced to take classes remotely. She said she found comfort in staying up with her friends until 3 a.m. as they reflected on their shared obstacles.
The Office of International Students and Scholars Peer Liaisons have also been a great help in easing anxieties and feeling connected to Yale, according to Tang.
Tang and Lin also said that the Yale Club of Beijing has organized activities for students in China such as a summer trip to the Great Wall of China and an alumni event this weekend.
Yale’s relationship with China began in 1835 when Yale alum Peter Parker — class of 1831 and medical school class of 1834 — established the first Western-style hospital, the Ophthalmic Hospital, in China.
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