Tufts cancels Hong Kong program next spring

University Hall at the University of Hong Kong, where the 2020 Tufts-in-Hong Kong program would have taken place, is pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons

Tufts has cancelled its Tufts-in-Hong Kong study abroad program for spring 2020, according to Mala Ghosh, senior director of study abroad and global education for the School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering.

Ghosh announced the cancellation in an email on Monday to all Tufts students enrolled in the spring-only program, following recent unrest in Hong Kong that has seen standoffs between protesters and the police at university campuses. 

“Unfortunately, the recent escalating violence, the ongoing sporadic geographic spread of unrest including now academic campuses, its impact on local services and transportation, closure of academic institutions, and expected continuation of volatility in Hong Kong prompted us to cancel the program next semester. The safety of our students is paramount,” the email read.

Protests in Hong Kong began in late March in opposition to a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminals and criminal suspects from Hong Kong to other territories, including mainland China. While the bill has since been withdrawn, the protests persist and have taken a broader anti-government stance. Violent clashes between the police and protesters have become more common.

There were 21 students enrolled in Tufts-in-Hong Kong when the university decided to cancel the program on Monday; 35 students had initially enrolled, according to Ghosh.

Ghosh confirmed that there are no Tufts students enrolled in external study abroad programs in Hong Kong this semester.

The cancellation of Tufts-in-Hong Kong comes after Ghosh sent an email on Nov. 13 asking students to reconsider their plans for the spring, including enrolling in other study abroad options or registering for classes at Tufts, as administrators reassessed the status of the program.

In September, Ghosh had said that the university planned to proceed with the Hong Kong program, while still allowing students who were concerned to withdraw from the program at any point or apply for backup programs through Tufts or external study abroad providers.

Ghosh added that only a handful of Tufts-in-Hong Kong students applied for an alternate study abroad program.

The protests that happened in Hong Kong last spring were not disruptive to the program, according to a statement from Vera Sui Ping Yip, resident director of Tufts-in-Hong Kong, read by Ghosh.

“The protests in the past were orderly protests in locations that were designated ahead of time. The organizers applied to the police with the schedule, the route and estimated participants. The [protests] last March and April were more peaceful, smaller-scale and had no impact on the daily life of [Tufts] students while they were here,” Yip said.

The cancellation of a Tufts study abroad program is not without precedent: Tufts-in-Ghana was halted in spring 2000 and suspended for four semesters after numerous instances of rape and sexual assault against Tufts students.

Ghosh said that this is the first time Tufts has cancelled a study abroad program due to protests.

Tufts joins other institutions in cancelling upcoming programs in Hong Kong, including the University of California system and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Several others have also cut short their ongoing Hong Kong programs over the past two weeks, including Syracuse University, Georgetown University and the University of Edinburgh.

Ghosh said that Tufts had not made any tuition payments to its program partner, the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

“[HKU] has been incredibly supportive,” Ghosh said.

Since the program was cancelled, Tufts’ Global Education office, headed by Ghosh, has been guiding students in figuring out their plans for next spring, including connecting students with external programs or the Office of Residential Life and Learning for their on-campus housing needs.

Jamie Gareh initially enrolled in Tufts-in-Hong Kong but decided to switch to his backup — an external program in South Africa — after hearing from Ghosh on Nov. 13 about a potential cancellation.

“It was the end of October … I just signed up very quickly on the last day before the deadline for this program in South Africa,” Gareh, a junior, said. “But I kept it in the back of my mind, as a … [backup]. Up until Wednesday [Nov. 13], I hadn’t really thought about doing that program.”

Gareh did not initially have any worries about studying in Hong Kong.

“I had a few concerns. But I’ve [got] family who lives there, I spoke to them and they [said], ‘You’ll be fine, as long as you don’t go to specific places where protests are happening. Life still goes on as normal.’ Everything sounded like it’ll be okay,” he said. “I didn’t expect [to use my backup] … I was more hopeful about it.”

Likewise, Tufts-in-Hong Kong prospective student Claire Devaney, who did not apply for alternative study abroad programs, did not expect the program to be cancelled.

“My friend was studying abroad in Hong Kong … I was talking to her beforehand and the beginning [of the protests] was fine, so I wasn’t really worried about the effect on exchange programs or travel,” Devaney, a junior, said.

Devaney felt that students were given very little notice that the program would be cancelled, leaving her scrambling to firm up her plans for the spring. She noted that Ghosh’s Nov. 13 email, which raised the possibility of cancellation, was sent less than 48 hours before juniors in the School of Arts and Sciences could register for classes.

“We had a meeting a month ago … they were monitoring [the situation in Hong Kong], but it would probably be okay, and then on Wednesday [Nov. 13] was the first we heard any news about [the program being] potentially cancelled,” she said.

Having her plans disrupted has been frustrating for Devaney, who was looking forward to going abroad. She wished that Global Education communicated more and supported her more in navigating the impact of the program’s cancellation.

Matthew Oh, too, did not have a backup plan to study abroad. Oh, a junior, took the step to voluntarily withdraw from Tufts-in-Hong Kong after reading the email on Nov. 13.

“I was [already] thinking about dropping out of the program because of all the news that was coming in,” he said. “I ultimately decided not to go because I didn’t think I’d have a good time there. I was afraid of the program being cancelled in the middle of the semester, and I’d lose a semester of classes.”

While Oh was eventually fine with staying at Medford for another semester, he originally had his eyes set on a semester in Hong Kong and did not consider other study abroad options.

“I was really set on going to Hong Kong. I just didn’t take it seriously enough that I might have to drop out or the program might be cancelled, so it was too late to start thinking about other programs that I would go to,” he said.

Oh said that settling his spring plans has been a “scramble” but the Global Education office has been helpful given the circumstances.

“They were very responsive … very prompt in their responses and they answered everything I needed,” he said. “Obviously the situation [in Hong Kong] is not under their control. I do feel bad for them too.”

On Tufts’ study abroad programs more generally, Ghosh said that many factors are considered when deciding whether to cancel a program, both before it commences or while it is ongoing.

Some of these factors include State Department travel advisories, advice from Tufts’ international medical and travel security services provider International SOS and curtailment of access to basic services like transportation and food.

In addition to safety, Ghosh said the university also considers whether the program can fulfill its mission to provide an immersive academic and cultural experience.

“If [the students] are safe, if it’s not a safety concern, but rather a … mobility issue where they can’t get around town or the city or travel freely, [we assess] is it worth them going abroad … versus not going abroad at all?” she said.

Ghosh added that all Tufts students are advised not to participate in political protests while studying abroad.

“We do not believe our students going abroad should attend any political protests or demonstrations in international locations, where they are not familiar with the culture, the location, the city and the different political factions,” she said.