Road to Stanford University: a Student’s Journey through the SARS Epidemic

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Social distancing from friends, classmates, and teachers is a major adjustment for students as they shelter inside from the dangers of COVID-19. Despite the benefits of social distancing, many educators worry that without equity across resources, family support, and home conditions, some students may fall behind academically as they suffer from emotional loss, trauma, and anxiety. 

As we searched for lessons and answers, we interviewed Dawn Kwan, who was a high school student in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic. Dawn explains that her experience as a student during the SARS epidemic really shaped her aspirations and what she wanted to do later in life. Since then, she’s graduated from Stanford University with a B.A in International Relations, and now serves as a Program Director at Team4Tech, a nonprofit that advances 21-century education in under-served communities through technology volunteers and solutions

Dawn’s journey from her high school in Hong Kong to the dorms of Stanford University in Palo Alto, is a unique journey of loss, hope, and resilience.

Dawn (far right) at Stanford University Graduation Dinner

Can you tell us about your personal experience with the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong?

SARS wasn’t as contagious as COVID-19, but the death rate was high and Hong Kong specifically was hit hard. I had a friend whose dad was in the ICU when SARS broke out. She visited him in the ICU prior to understanding the risk of SARS and later spent time with my family at a gathering. We later learned that her father had passed away from SARS and that she had also been infected. She recovered, but was left with long-term effects of the virus. As a result, my dad decided that my family would self-quarantine.  

That’s certainly a lot to take in. What was the impact of this on you as a student?

When SARS broke out in 2003, school closures lasted about a month and then we went into summer break. I was in my junior year of high school, and it was an important year because we had to prepare for external examinations known as the IB exams. These exams determined our entrance into universities. At the time, online learning was not as prominent as it is today due to the lack of devices and internet access. For this reason, students were encouraged to self-study and many teachers took different approaches with their students. 

Some teachers’ approach was to tell us to focus on the topics we already learned, excel in those topics for the external IB exam, and forgo the topics we wouldn’t be able to cover. For example, my chemistry teacher encouraged us to focus on excelling at all other subjects and skip organic chemistry on the exam, if needed. I think he understood the mounting stress and pressure that his students were facing, and he wanted to set some realistic expectations.

My math teacher was also amazing. He’s by far still one of my favorite teachers. He was very dedicated to our success and printed out past standard exams, sometimes going back 10-15 years, and mailed them out to all his students. We were able to take the practice exams under a time constraint on our own, then mail them back to him. He would then grade them and tell us how we could improve and mail them back again. When SARS slowed down, he held weekend math classes for his students on his own time. 

What were some of your biggest fears or challenges going through the SARS epidemic as a student?

In terms of my education, the biggest challenge was the IB exam. I was worried because we would still be compared against other students taking the test in countries that weren’t affected by SARS. The IB Board ended up giving leeway to students in Hong Kong due to school closures. I wasn’t fearful of much else because Hong Kong was able to identify those infected and trace who they had come in contact with. It was also customary for everyone to wear masks in public.

Was there any form of distance learning during the SARS epidemic?

At that time we did use the internet to do some research, but not everyone had access at home. There was nothing like Google Classrooms or Zoom during SARS so we heavily relied on self-study.

What lessons can you share with teachers to help students during this time?

In my current role, I work with a lot of teachers who teach a large percentage of rural, disadvantaged students who don’t have access to devices and the internet. It’s easy for us in the United States, and Silicon Valley in particular, to overly focus on how we deploy and use the technology. I would, given my experience with SARS, actually err on the side of trying not rely so heavily on tech, and instead, try to think about what can we can do to ensure that no student feels left behind.

For example, as I work with international school communities in my current role, I’ve been encouraging teachers in South African communities to have students take textbooks home and give them specific guidelines of what activities to do and the timelines. Also, we need to keep in mind that access to bandwidth or data can be a prohibitive cause. South Africa has implemented the ability to access education tech platforms without the need for data service. For example, if you’re accessing Khan Academy videos, you wouldn’t need data on your device. It’d be great if ATT or Verizon could offer free data for education resources.

What would your message be to educators during COVID-19?

It is important to be mindful not to leave any student behind just because they don’t have a device, internet access, or parental support. It is important to acknowledge that not everyone is from a privileged background. It will be terrible if some students are left far behind or completely forgotten because of their home circumstances until schools resume. It is necessary to figure out a way to make the need for devices and data not be the only way a student can keep up. 

I do think this is a good time for teachers to encourage and teach students on how to be self motivated. Personal autonomy is an important skill for students as they go off to college and into the working world, but it is not necessarily taught in schools. Empower students to learn on their own!


Do you have any questions or comments for Dawn? Please let us know in the comments below!


Swing Education offers a staffing application to provide qualified substitute teachers for K-12 schools. We recruit, screen, and permit educators to fill teacher and support staff absences. Schools and substitutes are matched through Swing Education’s online marketplace, with substitute teachers selecting job opportunities via text or a mobile app. To date, Swing Education has helped more than 2,500 school partners and over 5 million students.

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