SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Schools and universities in China have indefinitely suspended the start of their spring semesters because of the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization has declared a global emergency. Several language and study abroad programs have been completely canceled. That's left some American students scrambling to leave China. NPR's Emily Feng talks to one American student suddenly thrust into the unlikely position of helping to get fellow students home.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The Beijing University campus I'm trying to enter looks deserted. And when I walk up to the gate, I'm blocked by two guards.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: They tell me the entire campus has been sealed, and no one can go in. But I know that inside, several American students remain, and they're faced with the opposite of my problem. They're trying to get out.
BENJY RENTON: My name is Benjy Renton. I'm a junior East Asian studies major at Middlebury College in Vermont.
FENG: This week, Renton's U.S.-run language program at Beijing Capital Normal University decided to cancel the spring portion of their program because of the rapidly growing outbreak. But because of the virus, the program's American administrators aren't allowed on campus. Renton's been to China many times before, so his Chinese is pretty good. That meant...
You're kind of in charge all of a sudden. How did that happen?
RENTON: It happened - I don't know. I think that's just kind of the person that I am.
FENG: So, over the last few days, Renton has become the student point man working to get the students home. He's helped some of the 23 other students cancel Chinese phone plans and bank accounts before they leave. He's gone on grocery trip runs for the group. Food has become an issue. The university canteen only serves breakfast, and the students are basically stuck on campus. They can't leave without explicit permission, and takeout delivery people can't enter.
RENTON: And so we have to walk kind of to the east gate - the main gate of the university - and kind of get handed the takeout over the fence kind of thing.
FENG: Renton and the students are living in a campus hotel specifically for international students. The hotel is comfortable, but he says the students are starting to feel cooped up while they wait to be flown out commercially.
RENTON: And our temperatures are checked by the hotel three times a day - at 10 in the morning, at 5 and right before we go to bed.
MCCAMMON: None of the students are sick, but they are worried they might be quarantined when they land in the U.S. Still, Renton considers himself fortunate. He'll be able to complete his language credits back at Middlebury this spring. Other students are still trying to figure out where to spend their next semester. As soon as it's safe to do so, Renton says he is coming back to China.
RENTON: China has always been a very wonderful country, and I've been fascinated by it. I've traveled, and I've studied. I've worked here. And I just want to continue kind of because I see China as some part of my future.
FENG: For now, that future has been put on pause. Benjy Renton flies out this Saturday - one of the last people in his program to leave China. Leaving last is intentional.
RENTON: A captain must always go down with the ship.
FENG: He wants to know that by the time he takes off, everyone else has made it home safely.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
SOUNDBITE OF VILLAIN ACCELERATE'S "REVISIT")
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