SARS brakes co-op plans

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is putting the brakes on SFU's rapidly expanding international co-op education program.

Tanya Behrisch, international coordinator for co-op education at SFU, says international co-op placements are up 66 per cent over last year.

However, many of those new positions are in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore - regions that have been hit hardest by the recent SARS epidemic.

Approximately 40 SFU co-op students were scheduled to leave in May for jobs in Asia, but they have been given the option to cancel or postpone their placements without academic penalties, says Behrisch.

“It's not a trivial decision to withdraw from a co-op posting,” she says, “but student safety and institutional liability are primary concerns for us right now. We are making every effort to ensure our students have the information they need to make an educated decision.”

So far, half a dozen students have elected to defer or decline their co-op postings to Asia, and some Asian employers have cancelled or postponed student placements because Canada appears on the World Health Organization's list of SARS-affected countries. Behrisch is concerned that “should things escalate, we could lose as many as 60 placements for the rest of 2003.”

Co-op student Michelle Mah, in her final year of anthropology at SFU, was devastated to learn that she might have to give up her prized internship with the United Nation's development program in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I was so excited when I was offered the position in March, before SARS was really being talked about. But as my departure date got closer, I didn't know whether to stay or go, so I took the advice of (executive director of SFU International) Nello Angerilli and contacted my employer directly for a recommendation,” Mah says.

“She didn't trivialize my concerns. She just laid out the facts, pointing out that Canada has more SARS cases than Thailand. It was a relief to have that confirmation that things weren't so bad.”

Mah, who left for Bangkok on April 29, says that although she will take precautions against SARS, “I'm not worried about it. I'm more nervous about other things - like finding an apartment, for example.”

SFU President Michael Stevenson's recent decision to postpone an upcoming trip to Asia will “undoubtedly affect co-op placements and marketing,” says Behrisch.

“We'll lose a bit of our momentum, but the demand and interest for international co-op is clearly there. SARS has simply shown the need to diversify our placements,” she says.

“Like any good investor, we're going to have to explore new markets, such as Australia and Europe. We'll be focusing more on the quality of our placements, rather than the quantity.”

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