The coronavirus pandemic has had a broad effect on college students around the world. Some of the most uniquely affected have been international students, especially those from China—the early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. When the pandemic closed international borders, graduate students in the Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Richard H. Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (LRCCS) at the University of Michigan hunkered down and got creative.

Siyin Zheng (M.A. ’20) studies Chinese Politics and Data Science at LRCCS and U-M’s School of Information. When coronavirus first broke out in China, where her family lives, Siyin was mostly concerned for their welfare. Masks were nearly impossible to find in China, so she helped them source N-95 masks from the U.S. By the time they received the masks, about a month later, COVID-19 was spreading at an alarming rate in Michigan and she was now the one who couldn’t find masks.

“The situation in China was getting better, so my parents sent the masks back to me,” said Siyin.

Relationships in Action

Similarly, families of other LRCCS students from China were aware of the coronavirus threat much earlier than the United States shut down in March, and they were prepared to help. The LRCCS established efforts to help hospitals and shelters throughout Ann Arbor, Flint, and greater Detroit. Donations of over 10,000 face masks and 100 KN95 masks, along with sets of gloves and goggles flowed in from these parents, as well as alumni, friends, scholars, and researchers in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. The effort underscores the warm relationships LRCCS faculty and students have established through years of international collaboration and teaching on China scholarship since 1961.

Amber Hing, daughter of LRCCS director Twila Tardif, helps distribute donated PPE supplies

“I was both humbled and grateful when colleagues in Beijing, and students and former students from China, sent messages asking if I needed masks—and if so, how many could they send?” Reported LRCCS's new director, Twila Tardif. “Dr. Ming Li, a pediatric neurologist at Peking University First Hospital ended up sending 8,000 masks. Dr. Li wanted to donate masks to colleagues in pediatrics as well as to health care workers and families in need."

LRCCS graduate student Chad Westra

Chad Westra (M.A. ’20) is a Michigan native whose passion for Chinese studies was ignited during his first year in college when he spent a semester abroad in Beijing. He earned his master’s degree in Chinese Studies from LRCCS this spring.

“One of the most encouraging revelations I’ve had as a result of the coronavirus pandemic goes against much of the contemporary wisdom and animosity one can find directed against China and/or Asian Americans in the media,” noted Chad.

Flexibility Makes Room for New Opportunities

Used to studying under often-changing regulations and amid ongoing and escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, the roughly 370,000 Chinese students in the United States (up from around 100,000 in 2010) have developed a resilient adaptability.

Siyin felt lucky that her planned summer internship in Ann Arbor as a business analyst with Michigan Medicine wasn’t canceled. She’s been able to work from home—her apartment in Ann Arbor—which offered the flexibility to take some spring term courses online and to learn how to cook. Through it all, she made sure to keep connected with her friends.

“I set up a remote study group with my friends to check on each other’s progress in our online courses,” she said. “I've even had a virtual ‘cooking-together’ with my friends. We’ve cooked the same meal at the same time, pretending that we were getting together to have the party in person."


Buildings may have been shuttered, but Michigan residents were encouraged to spend time outdoors and, like many other U-M students who stayed in Ann Arbor and longtime Ann Arbor residents alike, Siyin discovered the beauty in her neighborhood through daily walks. “I really enjoyed watching Ann Arbor’s flowers bloom and so many shades of green emerge this spring!” she says.

Another LRCCS graduate student, also originally from China, planned to remain in Ann Arbor this summer to work on her archival research. Though the cancellation of U-M’s summer term necessitated that she cancel her summer fieldwork, she’s been able to continue work on her project through the university library’s digitized collection of primary sources. 

“I'm learning new data science skills on UMICH Coursera so that I can work with quantitative data collected from surveys and texts. In addition, our faculty are still accessible online and they give me piles of advice and instruction,” said the graduate student, who adapted to not being able to conduct in-person fieldwork by collecting data through online interviews.

Students to Share More About Their Experiences in Special Webinar on August 27

The University of Michigan is planning to welcome international students back to campus in just a few weeks for an in-person, public health-informed fall semester. As the story of the pandemic continues to unfold in the United States, LRCCS’s international students, visiting scholars, and researchers look forward to preserving and growing the people-to-people exchange that has been a key factor in maintaining successful U.S.-China relations over the past four decades.

Join LRCCS director Twila Tardif at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday, August 27, as she moderates Covid Impact on U-M Chinese Studies Students, a special webinar featuring student panelists who will share their experiences on the impact of the pandemic on their work and everyday life, and how they have adapted. Registration is required.

LRCCS Covers China Amid the Pandemic, And Beyond

The Center  has been hosting a series of summer webinars on the pandemic and relations with China featuring U-M faculty and national speakers. LRCCS Director Twila Tardif moderated a panel discussion from the International Institute and Ford School of Public Policy on brand new research on COVID-19 and its effects in different countries around the world. 

The “Connecting Pacific” podcast talks to faculty, alumni, and students about contemporary China, Hong Kong, pandemics and prejudice. Episodes one, two, and three are available now.

The Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies is one of the preeminent centers for Chinese studies in the world. The Center was established in 1961 with foundation grants from the Mellon and Ford Foundations, and support from the U.S. Department of Education. The 2014 Rogel Endowment further strengthened the Center’s capacity to offer innovative programming, to fund cutting-edge research on China across the disciplines, to host visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows, and distinguished practitioners, and finally, to offer Michigan graduate and undergraduate students internship and research and educational opportunities in China.

LRCCS graduate student scholarship on China is supported by student fellowships and grants. These donor-supported funds work together to support immersive research, internships, and travel, fostering a better understanding of, and richer collaboration in, China. Learn more about how support for LRCCS benefits activities, faculty, and students.