UT suspends Hong Kong study abroad programs due to ongoing protests


AUSTIN (KXAN) — UT Austin students scheduled to study in Hong Kong in the Spring of 2020 will no longer be allowed to due to ongoing protests, according to a letter sent to UT officials from the Global Engagement Office.

University officials specializing in global risk and safety approved recommendations including placing Hong Kong on the restricted regions list and a suspension of all programming in Hong Kong for the Spring 2020 semester.

“Our goal is to support the health, safety and security of all international travelers,” the letter reads. “We are hopeful that conditions will improve in the not-so-distant future so we can resume academic activities in Hong Kong with our partner institutions.”

This follows days of protests and standoffs at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. Only a handful of pro-democracy protesters remain.

Some have escaped, others have turned themselves in. The protesters argue China is trying to smother the freedoms Hong Kong was guaranteed.

But with tensions still high, UT Austin is taking the next step to protect their students in the region.

University officials wouldn’t disclose how many students were safely removed from the country over the last few weeks, but said about half chose to evacuate. They said they are remaining in close contact with those who elected to stay.

As for students who were planning on traveling in the Spring, many are disappointed.

KXAN spoke to Rachel Shen, a junior business student who was planning on going to Hong Kong in the spring. She said she had already notified her family, friends and college recruiters about her international travel plans.

Shen said she is considering other study abroad programs being offered as a substitute by the McCombs School of Business.

The university told KAN they will work with students to offer alternative program options so student academic plans would not be disrupted.

Anna Epstein, a junior in the business school, has decided to study abroad in Singapore instead of Hong Kong.

“I definitely want to make a visit to Hong Kong while I’m there and I’m definitely going to try to do so,” Epstein said. “I think it’s going to be a great time.”

Epstein said she was proactive in asking for a location-switch after watching the Chinese civil unrest over the past few months. She said a friend studied there this Fall and warned her of the potential danger.

“She just told me ‘hey, I don’t know if you know, but all of our classes just got canceled for the rest of the semester,'” Epstein said. “No cars were coming in, so no food was getting in.”

Global Security experts say this may become the new norm for Hong Kong and they expect it to get worse before it gets better.

“The protesters are seizing the universities and using the university as a confine to push their demands,” said Zhixing Zhang, the senior Asia Pacific Analyst for Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm. “We can expect sustained protesting in the weeks and months ahead.”

However, Zhang said people with travel plans don’t need to cancel. Foreigners are not being targeted by demonstrators and the U.S. State Department only has Hong Kong listed as a “level 2” travel advisory.

That means Americans and other travelers are only asked to “exercise increased caution.”

“I think its still a pretty safe place to go,” Zhang said.

Tonight on KXAN News at 10, Alex Caprariello will speak to a different UT student who will travel to Singapore after finding out her study abroad program in Hong Kong had been canceled.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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