Freshman from China endures weekslong journey to reach campus

Anybody from Shanghai faces a long journey on the way to Rice, but Apple Li’s trip to Houston amid the pandemic took weeks.

The Will Rice College freshman started out in China and deliberately diverted through Dubai for a 16 day layover, all part of a complicated itinerary designed to deliver her to campus in time for O-Week.

Although she went to high school in Indiana and had made plenty of international trips before August, Li said her parents initially opposed their daughter leaving China for the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic.

“But eventually they decided to let me come here, because they supported my decision,” said Li, who was drawn to Rice after visiting the campus in high school and being astounded by the warm welcome from students. “They knew how important it was for me to be here.”

Li, who plans to major in statistics, was worried remote learning would be complicated not only because her lessons would be conducted entirely online, but also because of the 13-hour time difference between Shanghai and Houston. More importantly, she didn’t want to miss the on-campus engagement she’d witnessed during her short Rice visit.

Apple Li, who plans to major in statistics, didn’t want to miss the on-campus engagement at Rice. (Photos and video by Brandon Martin)

Apple Li, who plans to major in statistics, didn’t want to miss the on-campus engagement at Rice. (Photos and video by Brandon Martin)

“College is more than just academics, more than just classes, more than just the knowledge that you receive in class,” Li said. “It’s an overall experience.”

So the planning to reach Rice in time for O-Week began.

On March 11, the U.S. government barred the entry of foreign nationals who had been to China, Iran and more than two dozen European countries during the previous 14 days. Traveling into China from abroad remains similarly restrictive. By August, only a few countries were both accepting flights from China and offering departures to the U.S.

This meant that with a negative coronavirus test and her student visa in order, Li could fly into one of those countries — which included Mexico, Serbia, Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates — and stay there for 14 days. That would satisfy the U.S. travel restrictions before she flew into Chicago and then took the final leg of her journey to Houston.

Li chose the UAE and its capital city, Dubai, because — as a popular international tourist destination — she felt it would be both safe and accommodating for a young college student traveling alone. But there were no visits to the Burj Khalifa or Wild Wadi Water Park while she was there.

“I mostly stayed in my hotel,” Li said. “Because it’s super hot in Dubai.”

She gave herself 16 days in the city to be able to say she’d more than satisfied the 14-day travel restriction, then packed her suitcases once more for the flight to Chicago. A last-minute hiccup with U.S. Customs and Border Protection was resolved after the agents saw copies of her new student paperwork from Rice. After 20 minutes that felt like much longer, Li was on her way to Houston. After landing at Bush Intercontinental Airport, she breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Li enjoys lunch with her roommate in the Will Rice College courtyard.

Li enjoys lunch with her roommate in the Will Rice College courtyard.

“From the time that I left China, I knew that it would be really hard to get back, so I had to succeed or else,” Li said. “I just feel really grateful that everything worked out.”

After another COVID-19 test in Rice’s Waltrip Indoor Training Center, Li was cleared to move in to her new college and meet her new friends. And although Will Rice’s O-Week activities had to move online because of some cases of COVID-19 in the dorms, Li was still able to participate in other parts of Rice’s official welcome week: She walked through the Sallyport on a sunny Friday and joined her O-Week group as they watched the matriculation fireworks from atop the Central Parking garage.

“Six feet apart,” Li said. “And wearing masks.”

These days, she’s enjoying her history class, study breaks with classmates in Fondren Library and Tex-Mex from the serveries – all in person.

“I think I’m getting the most out of the campus experience,” Li said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.