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US vs China: One Chinese Student’s Journey Through the Pandemic

US vs. China

Two years into the pandemic and we are still wondering what this elusive “new normal” is going to be. While the authorities and virus hash it out, your job is to help students navigate the shifting winds so they can more confidently enroll for the next semester. (We’re looking at you international admissions teams.)

What we know for sure: international students are eager to get on with their lives after waiting for Covid to pass. But, we know it’s not so simple.

Visa wait times, continued, sporadic travel restrictions, and challenges in accessing and validating US-approved vaccinations are causing delays and headaches.

There is wisdom in listening to real stories from real students studying through this very real pandemic. Today, I encourage you to read this tale of two countries by Intead Marketing Data Analyst and PhD aspirant Sally Zhu. Sally is another outstanding example of the value of the US OPT policies. We are so pleased to see this program recently expanding the definition of STEM and the 3-year work option in the US.

Side note: if you’ll be attending the 2022 AIEA conference in New Orleans (Feb 20-23), be in touch and we’ll find time for a coffee and an exchange of ideas.

Read on as Sally shares her dual experience of living in the US and China these past two years. It offers student enrollment managers and recruiters insights into messaging and approaches to pandemic-related communications. As marketers, topics that are important to our audiences are also important to us, right?

Studying Through the Pandemic: One Student’s Journey

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, not only at the national level, but also at the personal level. Being an international student in the US for years, I’m used to the changes and issues related to immigration policies and visa regulations; however, the COVID-19 pandemic affected life without prediction and forced me, along with everyone else, to rethink decisions and plans.

My US Pandemic Experience

After my Master’s program in Boston went fully online in April 2020, I stayed in the US until August 2020 before returning to China. Pre-pandemic, I had planned to go back to China sooner for job hunting.

Thinking back to spring 2020, the pandemic in the US was going through its initial stage and the cases had been growing rapidly since April. The US and global news outlets emphasized the challenging situation in China (especially Wuhan) and then Italy and other European countries. Then the news turned to the rapid increase in cases in the US.

During 2019 and 2020, I could see the attitudes change from “unbelievable” to “acceptable” and then to fatalistic, “What can we do?” It really takes time for people to change their living and working habits, especially when distance learning and remote working were discussed. Inconsistent approaches by region really made it difficult for individuals and communities to align their behaviors for the common good.

I still remember the date when my university announced the shutdown and moved all learning activities online. After this news was announced, some international students were planning to go back to their home countries immediately, while others were waiting to see what would happen and hoping that everything would go back to normal in a short period of time. I chose to stay in the US, initially, though my parents back home were very nervous about that decision.

Life had changed completely without any preparation. I was so glad that I was still in the process of writing my master thesis at that time. The changes prompted by the pandemic protocols really helped to motivate me every day and helped me plan my time under such pressure. I reduced outing activities (i.e., went to supermarkets once per two weeks), tried to call friends online, increased time watching TV and movies, and even increased my communications with family members. It was like everything had been postponed and you suddenly got some time to think and to respond.

I would describe this time as an essential transformative period for all of society. Even the RMV opened more services online (haha ☺). There was a hope that we could return back to normal in a short period of time, but as cases continued to increase, the entire society was trying to figure out “what to do” and “what should we change” to live a life with COVID.

My China Pandemic Experience

In the US, the pandemic had reduced job opportunities in higher education, so once I finished my master’s program, I returned home to China in August 2020. I took my COVID test negative results and boarded the flight home looking like a medical professional with all of my protective gear.

The situation in China in August 2020 was comparatively good, and everything was gradually getting back to normal. I did my 14-day quarantine in Xiamen upon arrival and headed home to Ningbo anticipating a normal social life. I believed that I was lucky enough to be back at a perfect time in China where the virus had been appropriately controlled.

Soon, I found a job at a university in Ningbo. I gradually realized that the well-controlled situation in China was the result of the vital contributions by all stakeholders. Every time cases appeared, all connections to the case were explored. For example, if one case had been identified in Shanghai, then people who may have had interactions with that case (i.e., took the same subway or lived in the same building) would need to take the COVID test or quarantine if necessary.

The entire society sought to work together to keep COVID cases in the smallest range and reduce opportunities to spread the virus. Instructions from government leaders were clear and consistent. In other words, COVID prevention became one of the major responsibilities of each individual. Interestingly, time sort of stopped when cases appeared, and then time started up again when the cases cleared.

A Few Observations

Having the experience of living in two countries during the pandemic has provided me opportunities to understand the idea of “a community with a shared future.” Being an international student in a different country or at home, I can clearly feel the tension, anxiety, and uncertainty in both societies. I’ve seen people’s attitudes change as time passed.

I think the US and China hold two different perspectives on COVID-19. The former slowly accepted the situation and gradually adapted to life with COVID. The latter quickly accepted the situation and continuously put efforts into life without COVID.

It is important to recognize that there is no right or wrong on how we, as a global community, are going to respond to this kind of global health crisis. It all really depends on the culture, the policies, the public awareness, and the government management of each respective nation. We as citizens are left to make our decisions based on the information and regulations presented to us.

Where I’m Headed

Currently, I am working as a student support advisor in a higher education institution in China. I have applied to a few US-based PhD programs and am eagerly awaiting the university responses. Earning a PhD was a personal goal when I completed my master’s program.

The pandemic has affected my decision about continuing my education, but not completely changed it. I still applied to the programs in the US that appear to be the right fit. And, in part because of the pandemic, I’ve explored some programs in Europe as well. Most of my friends asked why I’m so intent on earning my PhD in light of the health concerns and other challenges.

My answer: it’s an appropriate decision for my personal development regardless of COVID. As long as I feel it is safe to travel, despite all the pressures, nothing is going to stop me. I will manage it.

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