Calgary

'An outrage': Calgary universities suspend study abroad programs in countries experiencing COVID-19

A University of Calgary student studying abroad in Japan says his life has become "panicked" in recent days after the university decided to suspend a number of their study abroad programs.

Schools say they are working with students to bring them home or find alternative solutions

University of Calgary student Tyson Schmidt said he found it ridiculous the university took such "drastic" steps responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, especially considering there is only one confirmed case in the part of Japan he's in. (CBC/Facebook)

A University of Calgary student studying abroad in Japan says his life has become "panicked" in recent days due to what he feels is a rash decision by the university.

The university decided to suspend a number of their study abroad programs in "countries and areas experiencing community transmission of COVID-19."

Tyson Schmidt is a third-year international relations and Japanese language student studying at Kwansei Gakuin University near Osaka. 

He said the university's decision to suspend their programs for all students in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Singapore has had a "sudden and profound" impact on his life and on the lives of other students. 

"It all started extremely suddenly. On [Feb. 27] I woke up to an email from the University of Calgary's risk management team. [It] was recommending that I leave Japan immediately," he said.

"At that time, and even now, I don't consider [COVID-19] to be a tremendous risk to my personal health — or at least I'm not in any greater danger here than I would be in Canada."

Schmidt said the impact of the decision was being felt by students in multiple ways — emotionally, financially and educationally.

The University of Calgary posted a notice to their website explaining their decision earlier this week.

"Our decision was made after reviewing and assessing key medical information and updates from global health experts that advise against all nonessential travel to areas affected by the virus due to the potential health risks. We're concerned for the safety and well-being of our campus community," writes U of C provost Dru Marshall.

"We are continually monitoring and will update the list of suspended countries and areas as required."

The university administration has been in direct contact with several students, faculty and staff currently in these countries and have strongly suggested that they return to Calgary immediately, with the university's support and assistance.

Schmidt said he replied to the university's email, saying that while he appreciates the concern, he's been educating himself on the virus and understands the concerns — but despite all that, he plans to remain in Japan. 

"The reply I got back was pretty much, 'We can't force you to come back, but we are dropping you from our study abroad program,'" he said.

"Consequently, that means I won't be able to take my spring semester classes here, which means my student visa is going to lapse, which would mean I would be deported — so essentially, they can't make me leave, but they can make me leave."

An emailed statement from the university to CBC News suggests students who are in the foreign countries at the time of the suspension were able to choose to stay.

"In that case, we provided them with information on alternatives outside of the exchange program that would be available to them," it reads.

But Schmidt said after sending e-mails back and forth with university officials, he wasn't given many alternatives — and due to the nature of his program and timing, he'd be unable to enroll in classes back in Calgary. 

"They let me know they'd be withdrawing support and dropping me from the program — which is essentially expelling me from the program," he said.

"I let them know that I thought this was frankly an outrage because not only was I not consulted on this decision but it's one that has severe and profound impacts on my life and education going forward."

Schmidt said he found it ridiculous the university took such "drastic" steps, especially considering there is only one confirmed case in the part of Japan he's in.

And, when he heard about the cases cropping up in Alberta, he became even more frustrated. 

"I feel equally safe here in Japan as I would in Calgary," he said.

Schmidt said he also risks losing approximately $10,000 in scholarship money awarded to him by the Japanese Student Services Organization (JASSO).

"As a result, not only will I be forced to forfeit the remaining sum, but my inability to complete the spring semester will make me responsible for paying back the entire sum," he said.

"In their initial email, the university said they're going to ensure that no students are financially disadvantaged from this decision, but frankly that was not true."

Schmidt said he's currently working with JASSO to try and resolve the issue.

The U of C said they remain in regular contact with students.

"[We remain in contact] to ensure they receive the assistance they need in these extraordinary circumstances, including ensuring that students are able to retain any award funding they have received," reads the statement.

But Schmidt said he feels there is nuance to that statement.

"What they meant by 'not financially disadvantaged' was that they're going to pay the plane ticket and that's about it. So if you have a round-trip ticket, you're not out the money for that," he said.

"And if you have outstanding scholarships at the U of C… they'll pay all those or otherwise defer them to your next semester — but they're not going to cover me for my JASSO scholarship, so I can say with certainty that I'm going to be financially disadvantaged."

No matter what happens next with the university, Schmidt said he's determined to remain in Japan. 

"[I'll stay] whether it's by enrolling in a language school or whether I have to consider getting my part-time job to sponsor me and promote me to full-time work," he said.

Schmidt said he told the university that due to that fact, their decision to withdraw him from the program can't be for his well-being.

"I feel their argument that it's for the students' well-being holds very little weight as we've just found out there is a case in Calgary as well," he said. "So it really makes no difference whether you're living in Hyōgo or Calgary — coronavirus is getting around, and so for that reason I let them know that and let them know it can't possibly be for my well-being."

While numerous students at the U of C are impacted by the changes, the university was unable to confirm the number of students in the affected countries prior to publication, but said the suspension of travel to those areas is in effect until September 2020. 

Mount Royal University has issued a similar notice and has suspended university-related travel for students to the same countries. 

They say there is only one student in an unaffected region of South Korea.

"The university the student attends is closed until March 16. The student is in good health and is self-isolating and support is available to the student, if required," reads an emailed statement.

"The university in South Korea is monitoring the situation very closely and communicating with both students and partner universities. Any testing or hospitalization would be covered by the university. The student is checking in regularly."


What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call your local public health authority. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Be aware of evolving travel advisories to different regions.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta,. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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