The University of Minnesota’s attempts to evacuate seven students in Tokyo following the disasters there were met with frustration and — in two cases — outright refusal from students who are now traveling independently.
“We worry about [the students] because the news about Tokyo isn’t necessarily getting better,” said Stacey Tsantir, University coordinator for international health safety and compliance.
Meanwhile, the Learning Abroad Center is working to refund the program fee and housing costs for those students.
The seven students are attending a variety of programs, which were on break and scheduled to resume with a second semester in April. But the University notified the students’ programs that they would not be enrolled this semester.
The Learning Abroad Center offered all seven a $1,000 scholarship toward a sponsored or co-sponsored program between summer 2011 and May term 2012, along with refunding them the full cost of their second semesters.
“They are in an awful situation because this happened in the middle of the semester,” Tsantir said.
Study abroad insurance covered the cost of flying students back to the U.S., but it will not cover for the two students who refused immediate evacuation. But the students — whose names the University can’t release — won’t face disciplinary action and will receive the same general academic and financial support.
News of his program’s cancellation provoked frustration for Jakub Nemec, a 21-year-old chemical engineering student.
“I’m just wondering what the reaction of the other students is,” he said. “I hope they’re angry too.”
Nemec was so sure he’d go back to Nerima City, one of Tokyo’s 23 municipalities where he was living, that he left his martial arts uniform and bedding there. His second semester would have started April 15.
His April 17 return ticket already purchased, Nemec intends to return anyway to teach English. Like the other six students, it’s too late for him to begin the semester in Minnesota.
Some still abroad, ruled safe
Until the U.S. State Department lifts the travel warning for Japan, students who wish to study in Tokyo must apply for permission from the University’s International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee. Tsantir said it is unlikely applications to Tokyo will be approved in the near future.
The State Department travel warning recommends U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Complex evacuate. Tokyo is almost three times that distance from Fukushima.
Four University students studying in Hiroshima and Nagoya areas southwest of Tokyo remained in Japan to finish their programs.
Connie Sinks, who’s studying in Hiroshima, wrote about the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the plant on her blog in the days after the disasters struck.
Sinks was sitting with friends in a Mister Donut in Tokyo when she felt a “shaking that was sudden and quick,” she wrote. It was so subtle that one of her friends thought she was “just hyped up on too much sugar.”
Later on, watching news unfold from Hiroshima, Sinks wrote that it “felt like some kind of sci-fi movie” and “was really kind of eerie.”
Nonetheless, Sinks concluded Hiroshima was safe and she didn’t want to be “forced back to America before my time is up.”
‘Life goes on’
Nemec, who speaks Japanese and has attended Sophia University in Tokyo since June, experienced –– and dismissed –– almost all of the inconveniences listed on the State Department’s website under travel warnings for Japan.
“Rolling power outages continue in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area,” the website says.
“They were cutting our power for three hours a day, every day,” Nemec recalled. “It wasn’t that bad.”
The site also lists temporary shortages of food and water in affected areas of Japan due to power and transportation disruptions.
“The day after the earthquake was the first time I ever saw a convenience store empty of food,” Nemec said. “But people calmed down, convenience stores restocked. It was better the next day.
“Life goes on.”
Nemec’s parents, while supportive of his plan to spend two long semesters in Japan, wanted him out during the worst part of the crisis. The day after the first explosion at Fukushima, Nemec went online and took a Skype phone call from his mother.
“She’s panicked,” Nemec said, recalling the conversation. “She stayed up all night with my aunt. They were keeping each other in a constant state of panic as they told each other the latest news.
“I had to agree to fly home just to calm her down.”
Moments after the conversation with his mom, Nemec left his room and descended four flights of stairs to join thousands of others taking the hour-long train ride to the Immigration Information Center in Shinagawa prefecture to get a re-entry permit from the immigration office.
Seven hours and 3,000 people later, Nemec’s number was called. He barely caught the last train back to Nerima City where he kept himself awake, not wanting to sleep through his early morning flight.
By the time he got back to the U.S., he hadn’t slept for three days.
Nemec spoke matter-of-factly about the disasters he followed on TV with millions of other Japanese.
“Japan is prepared for tsunamis and earthquakes — but not a tsunami this size,” he said.
Back in the U.S., he has considered helping groups like the Japanese Student Association that have been making and giving out paper cranes in exchange for donations for the Japanese Red Cross.
In addition to crane-making, JSA worked with the Asian-American Student Union to host a sushi night Thursday in Coffman Union. Ticket sales from the sushi night, along with crane donations and individual contributions, totaled $2,256. Yuusuke Takenokuchi, JSA president, said JSA and ASU will host a charity event in Coffman’s Great Hall on April 22.
For Nemec, the only sure thing is the ticket he bought for his return to Tokyo in April.
“What’s going to happen now, nobody knows,” he said.
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
When UMN students plan for a vacation, having trip cancellation travel insurance is a worthwhile commodity to check out.
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