It struck them that the mere act of sitting down at a crowded table might prompt others to stand up and leave. It struck them that they might be targets of racial discrimination, said Tevinh Nguyen, a senior at Arizona State who is president of the Asian/Asian Pacific American Students’ Coalition.
Nguyen said he and others are worried about those who are “using this public health rhetoric to justify xenophobia.”
Across the country, colleges and universities in recent days have accelerated efforts to guard against a virus that causes respiratory illness and in some cases death. It poses a major public health challenge worldwide. But educators also are seeking to prevent outbreaks of hysteria and racism.
“This has been an intense learning moment for us, for our students, for everybody,” Arizona State President Michael Crow said Friday. He said the university has focused on disseminating accurate health information and making sure international and domestic students know the school upholds values of tolerance and diversity.
Arizona State kept its normal academic schedule despite a widely publicized online petition that urged the university to cancel classes because students were worried about coronavirus. Crow said the university is following its protocols for dealing with public health scares and keeping student groups informed.
“We’ve been working really hard to keep the environment on track,” Crow said.
Some schools have made missteps. Officials at the University of California at Berkeley apologized last month after the campus health center shared a handout in which xenophobia was listed as a “normal reaction” that some people might experience during the health crisis. The handout sparked widespread outrage.
“Stop normalizing racism,” a molecular virologist named Dustin R. Glasner, who is Asian American, wrote on Twitter. Glasner’s résumé notes he earned a doctorate at UC-Berkeley and is now a scholar at UC-San Francisco. “It is not normal, and racist reactions to the current coronavirus outbreak are NOT OKAY.” University officials swiftly revised the handout and said they regretted “any misunderstanding it may have caused.”
Coronavirus fears weigh heavily on college campuses because they are major hubs of international academic exchange. Students and faculty travel frequently to all corners of the world — including China.
There were more than 360,000 Chinese students in the U.S. higher education system in the last school year, according to the Institute of International Education, and tens of thousands more from other East Asian countries.
By Friday night, more than 34,000 coronavirus cases had been confirmed in China, the hardest-hit country. Of the more than 800 people who have died, nearly all are Chinese. The virus is spreading globally, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported just 12 cases and no deaths in the United States as of Friday.
At Arizona State, university officials disclosed Jan. 26 that a person connected to the community had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The person does not live in university housing, was not severely ill and was remaining in isolation to keep from spreading the illness, officials said.
Another case emerged at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. There, officials disclosed Feb. 1 that a young male student who had recently been in Wuhan — the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak — had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and was under observation.
Katherine Newman, the university’s interim chancellor, praised the campus response as restrained and empathetic.
“I try to remind everyone that a virus can happen anywhere, to anyone,” Newman said. “What we have to do is take every precaution and remember who we are — a campus that is very diverse with students from all over the world.”
Academic experts say worries about the coronavirus can feed racial stereotypes that have long plagued not only Asian visitors and immigrants in the United States, but also Asian Americans.
“The notion of a disease originating in a faraway place in which people share the same ethnicity — that has been a trope in the Asian American experience since Day One,” said Jason Oliver Chang, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. He said campus communities must be vigilant to defend students against incidents of racism that might arise in a climate of ignorance and fear. “It’s a combustible situation,” he said.
Student leaders, too, say stereotypes and hate speech must be confronted and denounced.
“Xenophobia has always targeted us, but the coronavirus has created new waves of racist rhetoric online, in schools and on our campuses,” said Shelley Shin, executive director of the East Coast Asian American Student Union.
Shin said the group is preparing for an annual conference this month in Pittsburgh. “We are concerned for our safety not because of the coronavirus, but because of potential retaliation from other people who may see large groups of Asian Americans in hotels and restaurants and other public spaces and lash out,” Shin said.
Georgetown University’s student news outlet the Hoya pointed out Friday that jokes about the virus often aren’t funny. In an editorial headlined “Avoid Coronavirus Memes,” the editorial board lamented that the crisis is seen too often in the United States as a punchline. “The university is not immune to the current worldwide increase in offensive anti-Asian rhetoric,” it said.
At Arizona State, one student recounted a brief but painful incident she suspects was racially motivated and connected to virus fears. Aretha Deng, 20, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, said she recently approached a table of students and asked whether she could sit down to study with them. They assented, Deng said. But then they whispered among themselves, abruptly packed their stuff and left.
“These microaggressions . . . make us feel unwelcome and make us feel foreign, even in my case,” Deng said. “I was born in America.”