International students’ water safety tested

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — On July 2 in Branson, Meng Fanjun and his wife Zhang Chunyang told friends they were going for a swim. They never returned.

The couple, both researchers from the MU School of Medicine, were found drowned in a hotel pool shortly after midnight.

EMTs tried CPR to revive the couple but were unsuccessful. Police said there were no signs of foul play or intoxication.

The couple’s ability to swim, however, remains a question.

The accident brings to light a potential safety issue involving international students and families who come from areas with inadequate water safety education and have few opportunities for swim lessons.

Last June, a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo died after drowning at Stephens Lake. The year before, Chinese doctoral student, Wei Yirui, almost died after she was found at the bottom of the swimming pool at Tara Apartments.

Police said at the time that Wei had just learned to swim.

Lesa Beamer, Wei’s thesis adviser in the biochemistry department, said she talked to several dozen international students while visiting Wei in the hospital and found that most did not know how to swim.

“I was really surprised,” Beamer said. “In the place I grew up, almost all kids know how to swim. You just assumed all people know that.”

A recent Canadian study found that newcomers to the country, especially those who had arrived within the past five years, are at higher risk for drowning when boating and swimming.

Immigrants to Canada are over four times more likely to be unable to swim than those born in Canada, according to the report released by Lifesaving Society, a nonprofit organization that trains swimmers to be lifeguards.

Similarly in the U.S., a study published in American Journal of Public Health in 2006, found foreign-born males had an increased risk for drowning compared with American-born males.

As of fall 2010, nearly 1,700 international students were studying at MU. The city has a foreign-born population of more than 7,000, according to 2005-2009 American Community Survey released by U.S. Census Bureau.

After Wei’s accident, Beamer said she was saddened when she read Internet comments critical of the student’s swimming skills.

“Many of them were saying how stupid you could be when you don’t know how to swim. But that is not the fact,” Beamer said. “People just don’t understand how this happened. In many other countries there are few opportunities to learn to swim.”

In China, for example, few schools can afford swimming pools. Public swimming pools are also scarce, even in big cities.

The lack of safe swimming facilities and water safety education for both parents and children has led to high rate of water-related deaths in the last decade. More than 30,000 children from age 0 to 14 drowned each year from 2000-2005, according to official Chinese statistics.

Parents are also reluctant to allow their children to learn to swim.

Research conducted in 2007 in Chengdu, a city with a population larger than Los Angeles, found only one-fifth of elementary and middle-school students could swim, while more than half had never jumped into water.

David Currey, assistant director of MU’s International Center, declined to comment about the possibility of providing water safety education during student orientation.

“All I can say is the university, in response, will do everything it can to continue trying to provide health and safety information that will meet the needs of international students,” Currey said.

Beamer said it might be helpful to make international students aware of the drowning incidents.

“Sometimes you don’t think about it when you see a nice swimming pool. You just want to have fun and jump in, and it actually can be dangerous,” she said.

On a recent afternoon, Han Jing, a former professional swimmer and a graduate student at MU, was helping two of her friends learn to swim at MizzouRec.

“I feel it is more difficult to teach adults than children,” Han said. “They are heavier, and they get too nervous.”

Han was trying to calm her friends, allowing them to hold her hands while using their legs to kick.

“Take a deep breath and relax,” she told them.

Yanli Yang, who was wearing a flotation belt, was finally able to make progress after choking some water. She did not learn to swim as a child, Yanli said, because her mother was worried about her safety.

“As I grow up, I’m getting even more scared of water,” Yanli said.

Two years after her near-drowning accident, Wei is recovering quite well, Beamer said.

“She has come back here, and she seems quite determined,” she said. “Wei survived, but this couple sadly did not. It is a tragedy.”

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