VPNs, Firewalls, & Blocked Apps, Oh My!

By Stefania Sarantis

“My name is Yinuo Fan, but my American name is Doris. Everyone chooses a name when they move to the United States, because you are becoming a new student.” 

Doris is a vibrant, kind, and energetic student who became my friend during my sophomore year at Tulane. She is part of a group called MeeTU K-Pop Dance Crew which she started at Tulane University, where her love for dance started. I am reminded by this when I see a video of her group dancing on YouTube. Doris is heavily clad in jewelry and black clothing to match the group. Doris commands the stage. As I watch, I’m reminded of her sitting next to me in our Intro to Economics class with her head burrowed into her tattered textbook. She is exhausted. She shows me a piece of paper. 

Doris winds up going back to China in March of 2020. 19 months later, I wait for her to answer my call. 

“Hi, Stef!” Despite being weary from just being woken up, Doris sounds upbeat. I’m calling her from New Orleans at 6:30 PM (7:30 AM for her). She currently lives in Shanghai, where she is completing an internship at a media company. She lives in an apartment alone, and has not seen her parents in months. They live seven hours away in Qingdao, a port city in the Shandong province of China. Its coast is studded with skyscrapers and blue skies. 

We start talking about life and share the many updates we have. Doris is taking a gap semester. She is in her third year at Tulane, and hasn’t been back on campus since March of 2020. “I’m taking a break. My parents did not want me to go back to Tulane for many reasons. When it was time to go back in August 2020, COVID was still really bad. Also, it was difficult to find flights—three flights were cancelled. I’m doing [an internship] this semester and will  start to prepare for GRE since I plan to go to grad school.” Doris is a high achiever, and is not one to shy away from a challenge. Pursuing this became much more difficult once COVID came along. 

As she saw her peers quickly pack up their belongings to return to their American hometowns, Doris pondered her options. “I felt lonely during this time because the campus became empty quite quickly. But my parents told me to stay, so I did not know how to decide.” We reminisced over the pros and cons to staying in America she had written up over a year ago. “My parents told me that my grades would suffer if I go back to China, because there are VPN problems and a big time difference.” VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it allows internet users to establish a private connection when using public networks. 

When classes went online, international students from China faced more obstacles with technology than students in the United States did. Firewalls, internet connectivity, and public networks blocking certain websites all posed issues when it came to attending school remotely. For a period of time, Zoom Meetings, the video conferencing software used by Tulane to conduct classes and meetings, was blocked in China. Instagram is another application that does not work from the Chinese Mainland. When trying to access Instagram from China, an error message will appear which blocks the user from using the app. In order to attend classes and stay connected with friends on Instagram, Doris had to purchase and download a VPN. 

“I managed to go to class and continue my studies. I had class throughout the night sometimes and for a bit I could not use Instagram to talk to my friends from Tulane.” Doris talked about how she is grateful there is a solution to this issue, otherwise her situation would have been a lot more difficult. 

Dory Kaplan is a student at Tulane who befriended Doris during her time at Tulane. Dory does not use Instagram, therefore it is a struggle to maintain the friendship overseas. Kaplan recalls conversations with Doris prior to her retreat back to China, preparing for many months of difficult, fragmented communication over email. “It really puts into perspective how many hurdles you have to jump over to maintain a relationship. It really does feel like we are incommunicado sometimes!”

Now, Doris spends her time completing an internship, studying for her GRE exam, and dancing in her group MeeTU with a few other girls who attend the dance studio. Doris started the MeeTU dance group at Tulane, but maintained the group back in China with new members. Although this is just for fun, they are excelling through live performances and their YouTube channel, both a testament to her skills, and the current COVID-19 guidelines in China.

“I am happy to be busy, but I feel a little bit bored at this job. I am doing things I could have done when I was 12! Right now we are making TikToks to teach youths about finance and currency”. Tik Tok, known as “Douyin” in China, is a Chinese video focused social networking website, but widely popular and used all over the world. 

“In December, I will begin a position at Deloitte, and I am very happy about this because I will be living closer to my parents”. Doris is thrilled at the opportunity. Deloitte is a global provider of audit services, consulting, risk and finance advisory, and tax related services. 

Eloise Dufka, a senior in the A.B. Freeman school of business gave some insight into the company: “You’re really expected to be a confident and highly esteemed professional if you want to work at Deloitte, and it is one of the Big Four accounting firms. The interview process is rigorous and very difficult.” It is fairly difficult to land a job at Deloitte, and Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business community considers anyone who manages to be highly esteemed. 

Deloitte has offices in 146 countries, one of which being the Chinese Mainland. “I am so grateful for this opportunity, and my parents are really very happy about this.” Doris’s father works as a customs officer at Qingdao Liuting International Airport, and her mother works as a civil servant in city hall.

I asked Doris about the big picture of Chinese students choosing to attend college in the United States. I want to understand what the appeal is, and who is able to do this. Doris answered, “In each province there is one test high school students can take. Students may only take this test once, so there is a lot of pressure.”
What Doris is talking about is the college entrance exam, NCEE, more commonly known as Gaokao in China. This exam is held annually in China and is notoriously difficult to get into. The pressure to do well is a product of the competitive academic culture in China. “In Chinese schools, students have a lot of anxiety because they can only take the test once. One chance is all they get.” Each province gets a different variation of the test, and the students in the Beijing municipality are known for always scoring higher than students in other provinces. Doris did not have this pressure as her academic journey had been decided for her before middle school. 

Doris went to an American high school in Qingdao, the Confucius International School. “Many people who are fortunate to do so will choose an American school. The SAT and ACT give students more chances to do well, and if they do well they can qualify for scholarships, which is how I was able to go to Tulane.” 

Attending school in the US and abroad is both a privilege and an easier way out, for those who are able to do so. “I am able to find more job opportunities through my professors and connections in my business classes.” She talks about how there are so many benefits to attending school in a country that has more freedoms. The exposure to a  different culture benefits her career prospects, too: even if she does end up pursuing a career in China, she has valuable global perspectives.

I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for international students who choose to pursue their undergraduate education in New Orleans. Hurricane Ida added more hurdles to the experience of all international students from all backgrounds. While many students evacuated in droves, international students were the most vulnerableIs it a welcoming place? Is it worth the risk of being evacuated for the hurricane? “I spoke to some of my friends from China who were evacuating on the Tulane buses, and they seemed ok. They did not seem very upset about the situation, and were happy with Tulane’s help during that time.

In fact, without Tulane’s swift operational decisions during the aftermath of hurricane Ida, this would have been a very difficult time, especially for international students. Doris recalls the anxieties of her friends through the phone before Ida was due to arrive in New Orleans: “They were thinking of many options. They were scared, but they were trying to make plans to feel better. I remember thinking I’m so lucky to not have to go through this anxiety, but [my friends] were taken care of by Tulane, and that also made me feel better.” 

The future of international students at Tulane is unclear. Will they continue to travel thousands of miles into a country that seems to be riddled with problems? It has taken the United States many more months to get COVID under control. Whereas the Chinese Mainland has a tight control on the number of cases in each neighborhood, making outbreaks very unlikely. Pursuing an academic career in a setting as unstable as New Orleans is a risky choice. 

It is December 1, 2021, and Doris is still in China. Despite the bumpy journey we both have had as undergraduate students in New Orleans, we reflect on the pros of remaining at Tulane in New Orleans. Pro: good music, good people, and a good life.

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