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JSU staff worry for friends at center of disease outbreak

Local faculty, students have often visited Wuhan campus through exchange program

Wuhan University

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker writes a colleague's name on a protective suit to aid in identification as they work at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province on, Jan. 24. 

Adrian Aveni’s memories of the Chinese city of Wuhan are fond ones, formed long before the city was plagued with an outbreak of disease. 

“It’s a very large city with a lot going on,” said Aveni, a Jacksonville State University emeritus sociology professor. “I have nothing but happy memories from my time over there.”

The city populated by over 11 million has been in headlines recently as the epicenter of an outbreak of a coronavirus, a family of viruses transmitted from animals to people that can cause a variety of illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. The city was quarantined Jan. 23, with travel suspended in and out of the city. The outbreak was declared an international health emergency by WHO on Thursday.

Aveni knows Wuhan as the home to friends and of a university that partners with JSU.

Since 1991, Jacksonville State has partnered with Wuhan University to give faculty, staff and students the chance to participate in an exchange program between the two campuses.

“I’ve had a chance to get to know a number of the Wuhan faculty that came to JSU,” said Aveni, who helped establish the exchange program. “Most of them are very proud of their time here.”

While the program is still available between the two universities, no one is currently enrolled in it, according to JSU spokeswoman Buffy Lockette.

“JSU has had an exchange program with Wuhan University for more than 20 years,” Lockette wrote in an email. “We don’t have any current exchanges, but we are thinking of our Chinese friends during this difficult time and praying for their health and safety.”

JSU is currently hosting seven students and one visiting scholar from China, according to Lockette, but none has been to China since August nor hail from the Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.

“While experts do not believe JSU poses a high risk for an outbreak, we have a contingency plan in place as with any public safety risk,” Lockette wrote.

Hanrong Wang, a law and technology librarian at JSU’s Houston Cole Library, spent a month in Wuhan in 2013 as part of the exchange program, where she worked with library staff and taught a few classes. 

“It’s just a huge city, and the campus is very big,” Wang said. “When I first heard, I used WhatsApp to contact my friends at Wuhan University. Right now, we’re still contacting each other. I just keep praying for them and hoping things get better.”

Aveni said he hasn’t heard much from friends in Wuhan with whom he regularly writes.

“People are very preoccupied with this epidemic,” he said. “I’m not surprised that I haven’t heard.”

Aveni, who last visited Wuhan three years ago, said the city reminded him of Chicago. It’s historic and old, Aveni said, with modern touches to newer skyscrapers and a high-speed railway.

“I’m sorry that Wuhan is getting all of this, what I consider to be negative publicity,” Aveni said. “It’s a great city, and it’s grown a lot over the last 30 years of my involvement.”

Wang said JSU is fortunate to get to partner with Wuhan University.

“It’s probably one of the top five universities in China,” she said. “It’s very prestigious. Its school of library information science was the top-ranked in China. I was a little bit proud of that.”

“There were a lot of faculty members going over before me,” Wang said. “When they came back and talked to me they just say it’s a good program.”

Exchange programs, Aveni said, facilitate learning in the classroom and out of it.

“I’m a real believer in exchange programs like this,” he said. It widens people’s horizons and can challenge some stereotypes. A lot of people coming from Wuhan got to see what small-town life is like.”

“You get to see different people and different cultures,” Wang said. “I think it helps you to understand your work better.”

Contact Staff Writer Daniel Mayes at 256-235-3561 or On Twitter @DMayes_Star.