Students in Lisle university's China program fight coronavirus from front lines

  • Chinese students in a master's of public health program in partnership with Benedictine University in Lisle prepare to join the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The students are communicating online with Professor Alan Gorr while classes in person are canceled.

    Chinese students in a master's of public health program in partnership with Benedictine University in Lisle prepare to join the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The students are communicating online with Professor Alan Gorr while classes in person are canceled. Courtesy of Alan Gorr

 
 
Updated 3/3/2020 12:04 PM

The students in a master's of public health program run by Benedictine University in China usually get an internship at a health center or government agency.

This spring, professors from the Lisle-based university say, their "internship" is working on the front lines to help treat patients or contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus that began in late December in the city of Wuhan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Suddenly, all of our students are in one way or another engaged in the COVID-19 efforts," said Alan Gorr, professor of public health and director of the program at Dalian Medical University in China.

Gorr remains in contact with many of the students through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app he's using to teach, review their work, learn about their lives fighting COVID-19 and keep them on track toward graduation. To his knowledge, none of the students has gotten sick.

While Chinese educational institutions have been "very reticent to accept the American models of online education," Gorr said, the new coronavirus is changing attitudes and practices. So online learning has begun to take place.

"It's almost like wartime where things that we talk about theoretically and hypothetically and in a planning mode suddenly are swept away by reality and you get on with it and make some very dramatic changes," Gorr said.

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The students' messages about their work helping fight the coronavirus are telling. Some are deep thoughts and fears about their government's reaction to the virus, he said. Some are requests for information from medical journals. Others are personal sentiments saying things like, "We miss you so much."

Gorr said he has responded by giving online pep talks, providing the medical information students requested and sharing his pride in their work. He said classes that would have been taught by Benedictine professors in China have been postponed until the fall, but he plans to stay in touch as much as possible.

Students whose plans for a normal internship were derailed by the coronavirus still will be writing a paper, designing slides and recording themselves making a presentation in English to send to Gorr for review.

Back home at Benedictine's main campus in Lisle, there are about 20 Chinese students. Checking in with them once the coronavirus began to spread was one of the university's first steps, said David Kleinberg, director of international programs and services.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

None of the students was sick or had been to China recently, Kleinberg said. All of the college's professors who were in China last fall to teach in the public health program -- or two other master's level programs taught in partnership with Chinese universities -- have remained healthy as well, he said.

But Benedictine has canceled all classes in China through April and called off professors' travel to the country. The university also called off a trip to China that had been planned for May to study international business, political science and biology, but that was canceled because of lack of interest -- not because of the virus.

North Central College in Naperville has canceled a May trip to China that would have brought eight students and two faculty members to Beijing, Hong Kong and Macao as part of a course exploring contemporary Chinese identities through history, language and culture, spokesman Jeremy Borling said. No students are studying abroad in China now, but 20 students total are in England, Scotland, Greece, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand.

At Judson University in Elgin, one Chinese student traveled home to China for the Christmas break and was unable to return to the U.S. for the spring semester, spokeswoman Mary Dulabaum said. The university has "a small number of students from China and South Korea" among its 62 total international students, but all have been on campus since the beginning of the semester and pose no health risks, she said.

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