It was the second week of January; I was in my hotel room in London. I had returned to my room for a quick check of email and to drop things off, I had the BBC on the news, and the words “sustained human-to-human contagion” made me turn my head. “Bookmark for later,” I thought. I leapt out of my room as fast as I had leaped in, and rushed to join students and colleagues on the Sport in London program.
This was already going to be a busy year—a banner year for international education in many senses. Sport in London was our first program of 2020, and with the assistance of scholarship money, we had three programs set to go to China and one each to Japan, Madrid, and Berlin. The International Criminal Justice course was taking students to Bosnia Herzegovina and The Hague. Faculty and students team were in final preparations for field research in several overseas destinations. Everything was set for our first faculty-led program to South Africa. We were developing new programs for Mexico, Chile, el Camino de Santiago in Spain, and Scotland. We were planning training sessions for faculty and writing grants to fund even more ambitious programming. And all of this would culminate in a major milestone: In Spring 2020, Trinity would send it’s 1,000th student abroad under the Trinity Tomorrow strategic plan.
That second week of January, campus internationalization had the wind at our backs and calm waters ahead.
Two weeks later, I was grabbing my phone and calling for a team meeting for Monday at 8 a.m. The situation in China had gone from worrisome to dangerous. I sat down with the Center for International Engagement (CIE) team as they sprung into action. Andre Martinez, Sabrina Cortez, and Carolina Fuentes Diego instantly started dividing up the tasks: “I’ll contact the providers,” one said; “I’ll double check to see who’s where,” the other replied; “I’ll prepare the emails,” another said. I saw Natalie Belew grab her phone and say “I think I have some students on WeChat,” the Chinese social media app. David Ribble, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, joined us.
A plan was forming, and the team’s decisiveness shored up once we knew we had the backing of the University. Our principle of “safety first” was our driving mantra—other questions about cost, classwork, and relocation would be answered later. As we wheeled in whiteboards and staked claim to little corners of the small office, I saw everyone working as a team with one purpose: Get our students back from China, now.
In 48 hours, we had flights for every student. We had made arrangements for them to re-join the Trinity community. This took coordination from Academic Affairs, the Registrar, Residential Life, the EAST Program, and the many, many compassionate, generous faculty and the staff of the CIE.
Early in February, in a hallway in Chapman, I nearly bumped into one of the students who we had almost had to force to return from China. “You’re back!” I exclaimed. “I’m really sorry we had to bring you back. I know how much you were looking forward to living in China, and I know your disappointment.” She smiled back at me and said, “I know; it’s hard, but there will be other chances.” After thanking her, I thought how mature and level headed our Trinity students are. Here’s a student who just lost one of the most impactful experiences of her undergraduate career and she acted with poise and graciousness.
We all know what happened next. The epidemic became a pandemic, and Italy became China, and then nowhere was safe. Evacuating 6 students from China quickly transformed into evacuating 153 students from 52 countries. We did not panic, because we work with a compassionate, caring, and capable group of professionals, and we serve mature, graceful, selfless students and the parents who raised them.
Looking ahead, oddly I’m thinking of Keith Jarrett, the only individual who’s won the Polar Music Prize for both contemporary and classical music. In his most acclaimed work, The Köln Concert, an improvised piece recorded live at Oper der Stadt Köln in 1975, the story goes: Earlier that day, Jarrett walked out of the hall initially refusing to play because the piano he had asked for—a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano—was replaced with an old, out-of-tune Bösendorfer baby grand with sticky pedals and missing keys. As Tim Harford describes in Messy, his 2016 book: Keith Jarrett was an exacting musician and an obsessive over perfection, and had every right to walk away. Yet, when faced with the challenge of playing a small out-of-tune piano in a giant hall, Jarrett turned around and walked back in. The challenges of being flexible, thinking on his (fingers and) feet, and adapting to new circumstances resulted in the best-selling piano album ever recorded. The Köln Concert is sublime, beautiful, enchanting; it lifts you and moves you like very few things can.
With this tune in my background, I find myself reflecting on how the CIE’s mission to internationalize Trinity’s campus never exclusively depended on taking students abroad. We feel now more than ever that the importance of a global mindset is essential for everyone. I look to our team—E’Randa, Qiu, Andre, Elseke, Carolina, Gina, Natalie, and Sabrina—I look to the challenge ahead, I think of Keith Jarrett, and I say to myself, “We got this.”