BOONE — A woman who spent roughly a year in Boone as an international student from China seven years ago mailed masks to a Valle Crucis couple after hearing about the personal protective equipment shortage due to COVID-19.

Carol Neill and her husband, Bob, spent several years serving as volunteers in the International Friendship Program at Appalachian State University. According to the program, IFP promotes friendship and cross-cultural exchange by connecting families and individuals from Watauga County with international students and scholars from the university.

Neill said the couple signed up for the program in 2012, hoping to connect with an international student from China as the two had a three-week visit there about two years prior. The Neills were paired with Zheng Zhou, and Carol Neill said they immediately “fell in love with her.”

While the Neills haven’t participated in the program in a few years, they went on to help international students in various capacities for about five or six years; the last were two men from Kenya and Burundi who were Mandela Fellows through the Mandela Washington Fellowship Institute.

Neill said when she and her husband decided to participate in IFP, they didn’t know that it would turn into an eight-year friendship with their first international student. It was this friendship that led to Zhou sending 60 masks — a combination of N95 masks and standard surgical masks — to the Neills to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the World Health Organization, China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia — eventually identified as a novel coronavirus — on Dec. 31, 2019. USA Today reported that the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Jan. 31. WHO made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic on March 11, according to the organization.

Neill said she received an email from Zhou in mid-March, asking about the pandemic situation in the U.S. Neill responded and told Zhou about PPE shortages and how businesses were closing. Wanting to help, Zhou said she wanted to send masks to her American family, the Neills. Neill wanted to highlight this act because she thinks some people have “antagonistic” views toward people in China at the moment.

“If we really believe we are all in this together, we need to empathize with our brothers and sisters around the world,” Neill said. “I think Zheng’s act shows exactly this.”

Neill said the two kept a few of the surgical masks for themselves, and delivered the rest to Watauga Medical Center on April 28. It was an exchange that Neill said was “very meaningful” to her.

“No matter how little we might think our contribution is ... it can be enormously important to someone else,” Neill said.

The Neills were Zhou’s fellowship family for the year she spent in Boone. Neill said they took Zhou to local ventures like Grandfather Mountain, Valle Crucis Park and the Watauga County Farmers’ Market. Zhou celebrated her 21st birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving with the Neills.

The three would also attend events at the university for the international students and their IFP families. While families participating in the program weren’t expected to allow students to stay in their home, Neill said Zhou would sometimes spend the weekend at their home in the Valle Crucis area.

The idea of the program is for families to get together with their international student at least once a month to exchange cultures without imposing political or religious beliefs, Neill said. She would invite Zhou to have dinner at their home, and Zhou would also offer to cook for them.

When it was time for Zhou to return to China, Neill said tears and hugs were shared. Zhou finished her economics degree in China, and returned to the U.S. sometime later to attend graduate school in Missouri. Neill said Zhou now lives with her husband and baby near Beijing.

For more information about the International Friendship Program, visit https://international.appstate.edu/get-involved/international-friendship-program.

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