Drexel students Trevor Adams and Tze-Fung “Francis” Suen were studying abroad at Tohoku University in northeastern Japan when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the region March 11.
The students had been studying in the area since the beginning of fall term. Though they were in Tokyo the day of the earthquake and were therefore unharmed, they were required to return to Drexel’s Philadelphia campus immediately — five months earlier than planned, and without completing the co-op that their study-abroad program entitled them to take.
Adams and Suen left Japan March 20, using their round-trip tickets that were supposed to be used to return to the United States when their study abroad program ended this September.
A couple days after the March 11 earthquake, they returned to their living arrangements in Sendai, which was one of the hardest-hit areas. Before the earthquake occurred they were planning to return to Sendai March 12.
When a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Sendai March 9, Drexel’s study abroad office contacted the students to ensure their safety. After the March 11 earthquake, which was more severe, the office contacted Adams the next day. The students remained in contact with the study abroad office via email and Skype until they left Japan.
“We were leaving the country when we were talking to Daniella Ascarelli, the director of the study abroad office. She had mentioned that we’ll stay here [in Philadelphia] for, let’s say, three weeks, see what the situation is then, and then if Tohoku [University] decides to reopen, we could go back. That’s what we were told while we were in Japan,” Adams, a senior computer science major in his third year at Drexel, said.
When the students met with the study abroad office March 28, one week after returning from Japan, they were surprised to be told that they couldn’t return.
“You can’t tell us while we’re in Japan that we could go back and then say nope, no can do [once we’re back in America],” Adams said.
Though he was able to find a co-op in the United States, Adams has had problems concerning his academic transcript and financial aid resulting from his abrupt removal from the study abroad program.
“I’m very mad at Drexel right now,” he said.
Adams took 24 credits during the fall program in Tohoku; however, due to issues with his grades, he has been met with confusion from the study abroad office and the co-op office. Neither department has been able to give him a definitive answer on how to resolve the conflict.
“Now my transcript comes back and I might have problems with financial aid. I don’t even know about my problems with financial aid because no one can tell me anything,” Adams explained.
Suen, a Drexel iSchool student, was one of the four students awarded the Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship for the 2010-11 academic year. As previously reported in the Triangle in July, he used his scholarship to partake in Drexel’s Global Engineering Education Exchange program at Tohoku University.
He was unable to respond at the time of print.
When asked about the status of Suen’s study abroad scholarship now that Suen is unable to study abroad in Japan, an assistant director at the financial aid office stated that he could not release the private information.
Because the University had released information that Adams was on co-op, he was unable to use SCDCOnline, the online system that most Drexel students use to search and apply for co-ops.
“So they put my resume in for a few of the jobs, but in the end I just found a job through a professor I worked for before,” Adams explained.
After an April 7 meeting with his professor of computer science, William Regli, Adams started working at Drexel’s Applied Communication and Information Networking program April 12. Regli serves as the executive director of ACIN. Though his co-op at ACIN is only scheduled for a three-month period, Adams said that Regli helped secure a second co-op for him for the other three months.
His co-op at ACIN is paid, unlike the research program he was supposed to do in Japan for his co-op.
According to Adams, Drexel didn’t initially ask the students about their living arrangements in Philadelphia once they returned to campus. Fortunately, both lived at home and were not inconvenienced by the unexpected return.
Adams and Suen aren’t the only students scrambling to organize their academic lives after the tsunami. Other universities, including all 10 campuses of the University of California, suspended all study abroad programs for students studying in Japan.
“Drexel’s decision was pretty simple. I mean, we felt that the situation was too unstable and I think Japan has been too unstable. If you’ve been reading the papers, you know there’s been more radiation, and it continues to be too unstable for our students to be there,” Ascarelli said.
“Any time there’s an incident, we obviously try to reach out to our students to make sure that they’re safe,” she added.
The University’s study abroad program in Cairo this year ended in late December, so all Drexel students had returned to Philadelphia before the Egyptian revolts began.
Similarly, Drexel study abroad students who had been in London during the subway bombings that occurred in July 2005 were contacted immediately afterward by the office, but did not have to return to the United States.
“We’re very optimistic. We’re hoping that, come this fall, Japan will be safe. There was a travel warning when we brought our students back, and now there’s just a travel alert,” Ascarelli said.
Adams said he had no plans to return to Japan since he is now on co-op.
On April 20, the Japanese government encouraged people to leave communities about 12 to 18 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, as well as five towns farther away that received extra fallout because of wind and rain patterns.
Ascarelli says that Tohoku, the university all Drexel students in Japan attend, is about 36 kilometers, or 20 miles, away from the nuclear site.