UNLV Hospitality student Huiying Zhang arranges her busy schedule around nightly video chats with her husband and her 2-year son. They live several time zones and an ocean away in Beijing, China. This virtual ritual is soothing and fuels Zhang for the coming day as she works toward a Ph.D. and the promise of greater opportunities for her family.
Zhang had been looking forward to a visit from her family in the spring. But their travel plans to Vegas began to unravel when the coronavirus took hold of her home country and then the world. And a trip back to China to see the family she sorely missed was out of the question:
“I can’t go back,” said Zhang, known as “Sophie” by her friends and colleagues. “If I did I would have to self-quarantine for two weeks. Also, no one knows what’s going to happen with border controls, so I may not be able to come back (to the United States) if I left.
“If you don’t have physical contact with people, you’re safe, and you’re keeping them safe.”
Staying healthy, and protecting others around her, is the new normal for the first-year Ph.D. student in UNLV's Harrah College of Hospitality. Her exhaustive study, teaching, and research schedule leaves little room for downtime. UNLV guidelines requiring remote learning has made studying and preparing for classes a solo activity. On top of social distancing, she has taken to wearing gloves and a mask as part of her daily routine.
But when word came that the UNLV residence halls were encouraging students to leave, Zhang’s concerns immediately switched to finding a place to live. She, along with dozens of international students living in the residence halls, faced some quick decisions.
Though Zhang had options to stay in the residence hall or with friends in town, she pointed to the “ethical issues of living with others at a time like this.” Finding an off-campus apartment presented its own challenges, however. Her international status meant that she would have to come up with a three-month deposit instead of one — a significant financial strain for Zhang and her family.
Fortunately, after one of her professors vouched for her, Zhang received a reprieve on the deposit and was able to secure an apartment just off campus. There were other issues, like additional deposits, meal plans, and the looming move-out date, but Zhang says most of her challenges have been met with flexibility and understanding:
“They [UNLV Housing] extended my move-out date to March 27, which was good because I needed to pack my things, finish assignments, and prepare my lecture. It was stressful, but they said ‘Don’t worry … take your time. We totally understand the situation.’”
Seldom seen without a smile, Zhang admits to feeling the effects of separation from her family and peers. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m living on a lonely island,” she says. She counters these feelings by not just staying busy, but by being productive — taking time to dive into her studies and perfect her lectures while working on a top-tier journal manuscript that had been in the queue.
Zhang also sees social distancing as an opportunity to gain perspective.
“It’s a good thing to cherish everyday normal life,” she says. “You have no idea what you have until you’ve lost it. This will make us want to spend more time with family and friends. This experience will remind us to cherish everything we have.”
Zhang finds her students to be particularly inspiring. Though troubled by the potential impacts to the job market, her students — mostly juniors and seniors — are staying positive and showing “great maturity” in the wake of this unprecedented pandemic. This fortitude, she tells them, will serve as a great asset in their future careers: “You guys are going to be the leaders of the whole industry one day,” I tell them. “You have to know how to deal with challenges. You need to be flexible and resilient. That way, you can cope with anything that comes your way.”
On the topic of the future, Zhang’s smile quickly returns.
Originally from Shenyang China, Huiying “Sophie” Zhang moved to Beijing as a young student to pursue undergraduate and master’s degrees at Beijing International Studies University specializing in tourism and destination management. After graduating, Zhang worked in several for government and non-government organizations in China and Spain (UNWTO-World Tourism Organization of United Nations). Additionally, she served as senior manager of membership for the Beijing-based World Tourism Cities Federation. She is now in her first year at UNLV pursuing a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management with a research focus in smart/sustainable tourism.