J’cans still eager to study in China, says embassy

A number of Jamaican students who have applied for scholarship to study in China ahead of the discovery of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan are still eager to do so, according to the Chinese embassy in Jamaica.

Up to February 20, five days before the application deadline and long before the full extent of the devastation that COVID-19 would wreak on the global economy became apparent, there were 35 Jamaicans hoping to have the Jamaican and Chinese governments defray some of their costs to study in the Asian country.

These applicants are still waiting to hear if they have been successful, as universities go over their submissions ahead of their final reports to the Chinese scholarship office.

“We have not received any request for cancellations or deferments from the scholarship applicants. Instead, some applicants are eager to get their admission to pursue their higher education in China,” embassy spokesperson Shaowu Xia told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

In addition to discussions surrounding the next tranche of Jamaican students hoping to study in China, there are also ongoing efforts to ensure that those who were slated to graduate this summer will be able to do so.

“We are not aware of any graduations being delayed that will impact Jamaican scholarship students. The graduation [dates] of different universities may differ from each other due to the situation [caused by the] COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shaowu. “The universities have their own arrangements accordingly, such as online learning or online thesis defence and dissertation. At present, all is well with Jamaican students studying in China. We have not received any complaint or request for assistance.”

Norville Belvett, a master’s degree scholarship student at Wuhan University of Technology, is among those who have presented and defended their thesis virtually. He is still waiting, though, to hear when he will graduate.

“Some schools have set dates already. Mine has not,” he told the Observer yesterday. In an earlier conversation last week, he spoke of his hope that, unlike his thesis defence, graduation would be in real life.

“They haven’t said yet if it will be virtual or in person,” he said.

His eagerness to be allowed to proudly walk across the stage to accept his hard-earned degree is fuelled by the reassurance he takes from safety measures in place at his university.

“We have all been tested for COVID-19 and we’re basically in isolation. I got tested twice. The first [time] was about a month ago and the second was around May 19.”

He doubts friends and family members will be allowed to physically attend the graduation if it’s held offline.

“The city is open but the university is still under semi-lockdown. We can walk around the campus but we can’t leave unless we get special permission. They say outside isn’t 100 per cent safe. Wearing masks outside is mandatory,” Belvett explained.

But whether the ceremony is held virtually or offline, attended by just the graduates or open to the public, he made it clear from the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak that he just wants to finish on time.

For Jamaican scholarship students in China, staying on schedule is important as it has financial implications.

According to responses to an Access to Information request, China, as the host country, covers tuition, accommodation, and provides an allowance for living expenses. The Jamaican Government “is responsible for the counterpart stipend payment for the duration of study”. Only numbers for 2018 to 2020 were said to be “readily available”, showing that, in total, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) spent US$280,444 to cover stipends for scholarship students in China for that period.

Data from the Scholarships and Assistance Unit show that, as at the 2019 calendar year, there are 44 Jamaican scholarship students in China benefiting from arrangements between the Chinese embassy in Jamaica or the China Aide programme. The numbers have increased significantly since 2015 when there were only six.

With the landscape now altered by COVID-19, the Jamaican Government will have to determine the way forward, financially, for students whose period of study is impacted by the pandemic.

“Given that the COVID-19 outbreak is now a pandemic, the GOJ will continue to have regular dialogue through diplomatic channels with the Chinese Government as to the appropriate course(s) of action, and where possible, will provide support to ensure the safety and security of the students affected,” was the response to a question on the impact any delay would have on financial assistance provided.

Yesterday, the Chinese embassy reaffirmed its commitment to providing financial support to the students already in China, if needed. However, it does not anticipate that there will be any undue delay for students completing their studies.

“The issue of possible increase in the expenses for accommodations and living expenses has not been discussed yet,” said Shaowu. “Should there be an increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would probably be borne by the Chinese side. It is hard to estimate the amount of the additional expense due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.”

He added: “We are confident that Jamaican students will successfully complete their study in China. Some graduates have already started pursuing further development in China, looking for a job or continuing further education. We wish that the pandemic can be controlled soon, so that more Jamaican students can go to China for education and exchanges.”

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