FOR COLLEGE students, the beginning of the spring semester heralds the end of winter. However, Yonsei University and other schools across South Korea have delayed the start of the spring semester from March 2 to 16, an unprecedented emergency measure to contain the spread of COVID-19—the highly infectious new coronavirus that has paralyzed the world. As the Yonsei administration continues to grapple with the emerging health crisis in compliance with a slew of new government regulations, it has become clear that the ramifications for university life will be significant and far-reaching. The Yonsei Annals has reached out to students, recent graduates, and faculty in order to better understand how the current situation has impacted them as well as the effects it will have on the upcoming semester.
In order to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and mitigate its potential impact on campus, Yonsei has cancelled its 2020 spring matriculation ceremony, pushing the scheduled February commencement by a semester to be held jointly with the fall matriculation ceremony in August. For international students, many of whom would have to plan around other commitments while also accounting for overseas travel, such change means that they are unable to participate in the ceremony. In an interview with the Annals, Carlos Agravante (Class of ’15, UIC, International Studies) said, “As the first child in my family to graduate, my parents were looking forward to attending my graduation ceremony, so it’s disappointing that it was canceled. If I can, I’ll attend the ceremony in August, but it really depends on my law school [application] results from the Philippines.” Expressing a similar sentiment, incoming freshman, Kim Tae-mi (Fresh., Dept. of Political Science), said, “I was disappointed to lose the chance to participate in the entrance ceremony because I think events like university entrance and graduation ceremonies are important milestones in one’s life.”
COVID-19 has also prevented various student councils from holding orientations for incoming freshmen. More so than matriculation, the cancellation of orientations could have a sizable impact on the university experience of new students. Without them, freshman can have difficulty acquiring information regarding course registration, dormitory life, and student clubs, a problem that cannot always be solved through online means. Kim said, “Although I can get information [on clubs] from Facebook, the school website, and the Everytime app, this isn’t enough.” Freshmen orientations frequently include the promotion of clubs and provide valuable information regarding deadlines and methods for applying. Especially for newly established clubs or those specifically designed for certain majors which lack an online presence, orientations are sometimes the only feasible way to reach out to new students.
Even putting aside the purely logistical problems caused by cancelling orientations, freshmen this semester are deprived of an early opportunity to begin acclimating to college life. Without a proper occasion to interact with upperclassmen and their peers, incoming freshmen could struggle to connect with new people in an unfamiliar environment. Kim admitted to feeling concerned about the situation saying, “I practically know no one in my department, so I’m worried about my life at the Songdo campus. Since I got accepted during the regular admission period, I didn’t have a chance to participate in any get-togethers.” Kim’s dilemma is no doubt similar to many of his peers but as the spread of COVID-19 continues to intensify a better alternative remains, for the moment, out of reach.
Quarantine in the Dorms
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to progress, Yonsei has begun enforcing more severe measures for disease control that has led to friction with the student body. Some new policies came as a result of government guidelines—most notably the dorm quarantine measures. Prompted by the Ministry of Education’s “Protocol for Entering Chinese Students’ Protection and Care,” the guideline has mandated that schools implement their own quarantine measures for the Chinese exchange students expected to arrive in the weeks leading up to March. Additional stipulations state that a room be provided for every such student for a period of 14 days in addition to basic necessities. Such measures are carried out by individual universities as both the municipal and central government agencies lack the resources required to inspect each of the roughly 70,000 Chinese exchange students to arrive in a period of two weeks.
As a result, on February 10, Yonsei University issued a notice on the Housing Office’s website that all students residing in the dorms would be evicted by the 19th of the same month with no exceptions. In addition, foreign and overseas students who had visited China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia after January 15 and planned to reside in the dorms, were to be quarantined for 2 weeks in Building B of the Muak 4 Dormitory following their admittance into the dorms between February 28 and 29. Yonsei University is to provide these students single rooms with personal bathrooms and deliver meals and water directly to prevent them from leaving their rooms. Students entering the dorms after the 29th were given the option to quarantine themselves for two weeks prior to admittance.
Students staying in the dormitories were quick to condemn the fact that they were given only seven days prior notice about their pending eviction, arguing that a week was clearly insufficient to arrange for alternative accommodations. The General Student Council was quick to follow, denouncing the eviction procedure as a “unilateral decision that seriously infringed upon the rights of students staying in the dorms” the same day. From the following day, the General Student Council began gathering student complaints before meeting with the Housing Office to request that additional accommodations and further consideration of extenuating circumstances be given to the students. In an interview with the Annals, the President of the 55th General Student Council, Kwon Soon-Ju (Sr., Dept. of Mech. Engin.), said, “The Housing Office asked us to try to understand as this was…an emergency situation.” Reflecting on the concerns raised by the student body, Kwon said the General Student Council urged the administration to try to “adjust” the policy as it was too “extreme.”
The university subsequently amended its dorm withdrawal notice on the 12th to state that students who filled out a form declaring an appropriate reason for staying in the dorms would be granted permission to do so until a yet undetermined period in March. The issue has thus been temporarily resolved, but there is still lingering resentment over the university’s poor handling of the situation and a petition has been posted on the Yonsei student homepage demanding that Yonsei apologize for its callous treatment of students. “Initially, they took a firm stance on [maintaining] their policy,” Kwon explained. He said that pressure from negative press and the continuous efforts of the student body wore the administration’s initial resistance down and changed their stance. However, despite their initial differences, Kwon stressed that Yonsei never once seemed to be “ignoring student’s demands on purpose.” He remarked that the dorm administrators and the Office of Student Affairs and Services were “accommodating...and consulted the General Student Council often.” In addition, Kwon noted that while students had perfectly valid reasons for their frustration, the school was acting responsibly and was right to take “pre-emptive measures” to ensure that “the possibility of a major health crisis” was kept low.
However, there are doubts as to whether the current quarantine protocols will prove effective at all. In a poster put up by Yonsei students outside of the Central Library condemning the administration for the dorm quarantine procedures, students pointed out that in the first round of student quarantines in early to mid-February, Yonsei relied on the voluntary submission of reports from foreign students. With no means to check the reliability of self-reports, students expressed concerns that such a loophole provided an obvious incentive for some students to file reports dishonestly. The authors of the poster hold that the current policy would only cause discontentment among students as “[the rumors of] students who did not report would fuel suspicion, and the conscientious students who did report would feel that their rights had been violated.” In addition to such criticisms, students have also pointed out that there is also a high possibility of disease transmission among the individuals who have been quarantined. The Muak dormitories all have communal bathrooms, showers, and laundry rooms, making it almost impossible to completely isolate every student there for two whole weeks.
As the onslaught of COVID-19 continues, it seems inevitable that uncertainties regarding the school schedule persist throughout the semester. With the semester a week shorter, lasting from March 16 to June 29, some professors have considered making a few classes optional. “The school has given more freedom to professors in arranging their own schedule,” Professor Do Bo-ram (Prof., School of Business) explained. Her class is part of the Global Master of Business Administration (MBA) program and is composed mostly of foreign students whose visa deadlines expire close to the end of the semester. As a result, her class will not be conducted past the usual June 19th mark, as exchange students' visas deadline expires close to the end of the semester. Noting that such talks are still ongoing between the professors and the administration, Professor Do said that she is not, however, “aware of other departments in Yonsei doing something similar.” More details are expected to become clear once the semester officially begins.
Outside of classes, student club activities are also expected to be affected by the spread of the virus as the school has suspended or limited the use of its school facilities. Student sports teams and clubs utilizing large indoor space are expected to be hit the hardest as indoor spaces have been shut down. Spaces such as the indoor volleyball court and squash court are currently unavailable with little information on when they will reopen. The school’s numerous sports teams and clubs have effectively been suspended as well, as they are unable to find alternative facilities to practice in. In an interview with the Annals, the captain of the Yonsei volleyball team, Seok Chul-woo (Sr., Dept. of Physical Education) mentioned that the biggest problem for him was “rescheduling practices for the coming competition season.” Seok then said that the school told him that the “availability of the facilities during the semester depends on the changing circumstances.”
In this difficult turn of events, however, some have adopted a more positive outlook- especially regarding the extensive cooperation between the students, professors and the administration. Describing the administration as “diligent,” the President of the General Student Council mentioned that “the university meets regularly with the Ministry [of Education]” and that “the school is working very hard” on the issue. With Yonsei contacting them via the Office of Student Affairs and Services to consult on student needs and the student body reporting various issues to the General Student Council, Kwon said that he is “always at the ready” and that he has regularly slept in the office to be prepared for any situation. He also remarked that the school administration would be just as busy and hectic. Professor Do praised the administration saying that she was “personally impressed with the fast response by the administration …in notifying [the professors and students] of new developments.”
There is still much to be done. For its part, the General Student Council has emphasized the need for more student feedback. “If we do not hear from the students, we have no information to take further action…We respectfully ask that students communicate and report to the General Student Council more often,” urged Kwon. More generally, if Yonseians are to successfully manage this crisis, Professor Do said that there are “burdens” which need to be “shared by everyone…regardless of their status as a student or professor, Korean citizen or Chinese.” As per recommendations from Korean Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, individual students and faculty members will also have to exercise more rigorous attention to basic hygiene and refrain from crowded areas. This period will be a test for us all, requiring cooperative effort from all members of society, including foreign exchange students, for the good of public safety.