The University of California Education Abroad Program decided yesterday to suspend its spring study abroad program in Hong Kong, citing concerns for student safety amidst the ongoing protests, according to Executive Director Vivian-Lee Nyitray.
The decision to suspend the spring study abroad program was made now to ensure that students who were planning to study abroad in Hong Kong will be able to transfer to a different program or coordinate housing and classes at their home campuses if they choose to stay in the U.S., Nyitray said.
“We felt that rather than have them go, potentially be in an unsafe situation and have to worry about evacuating them… it would be preferable to not have them go,” Nyitray said.
Nyitray added that the program is keeping a close eye on the protests in order to gauge whether to evacuate the students currently studying abroad in Hong Kong.
There are currently 79 UC students in Hong Kong taking courses through the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), seven of whom were scheduled to stay in Hong Kong for the full academic year. In addition to those seven students, 12 other students were expected to study abroad in Hong Kong in the spring.
Nyitray said there were originally 90 students scheduled to go to Hong Kong in the fall, but after UCEAP offered them the option to switch programs or postpone their studies abroad due to the protests, 11 students chose to do so.
“We’ve been monitoring the situation since the summer,” Nyitray said. “So this wasn’t a decision that was either made lightly or out of any kind of haste or panic.”
“As the protests again continued to escalate further, and the response has been so unexpectedly strong from the police, with people being shot at with live ammunition, we felt that we really needed to evaluate this very, very carefully,” she continued.
Nyitray said the program’s first priority was ensuring the safety of UC students who are currently in Hong Kong, all of whom are attending one of three schools: University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong or Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Two out of our three partners [University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong] are now actually sites of protests and violence, and the faculty and staff are having difficulty getting to campus if they live at any distance because of the transit systems being shut down,” Nyitray said.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that police in Hong Kong had begun “raiding the edges of the biggest campuses to make arrests.”
On Tuesday night, police officers and students clashed near the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; “police officers fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets and students hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks, and practiced firing bows with flaming arrows,” according to the Times.
Nyitray said that while it hasn’t reached the point where UCEAP will “actively evacuate” students currently in Hong Kong, students have been given the option to end their programs early and return home. UCEAP and its partner universities in Hong Kong have been working with students to ensure they will receive course credit for their terms, she added.
She explained that as the protests escalated, there were “a number of [non-UC universities] who didn’t send students this fall at all,” while others have now “pulled [students] back and have simply told them ‘you must come back now.’”
But because the UCEAP program is unusual in that it has such a large number of students, “we really wanted to not just jump in, we wanted to really assess the situation and give the students optimal chance to remain, to have the academic experience that they wanted to have, before we pulled out,” Nyitray said.
She also added that if students were sent to Hong Kong in the spring and had to be evacuated, they might not be able to receive credit for the classes they were taking or be able to enroll in time at their home campuses for the quarter or semester.
“We’re trying to balance the academic and the financial consequences for the students, you know, we don’t want any of the students to suffer at all,” Nyitray said.
UCEAP has not determined if they will suspend the Hong Kong summer abroad programs.
“It’s just so unclear — it’s unclear to our partners, it’s unclear to us,” Nyitray said. “We’ve been monitoring the State Department updates every day, and we have been monitoring local news, not only the foreign news, but local news, and of course we have our partners on the ground.”
Nyitray noted that the State Department security level for Hong Kong is level two, or “exercise increased caution,” which she said was the same security level as most of Western Europe.
“With the violence and the protests having moved to the campuses themselves, we feel that the situation warranted extra caution.”