Alumni and families from China send thousands of face masks to Grinnell

April 16, 2020 — When a student from China enrolls at Grinnell College, it’s not just that individual who joins the Grinnell College community.

Zhenzhong “Jack” Xing ’23 explains that parents and family members – many of whom never set foot in the U.S. – also become invested in Grinnell.

“As part of the Grinnell community, we feel like we have a responsibility to help people in Grinnell who need medical care,” Xing says. “In China, we have the ability to buy this kind of protective equipment; we are obliged to do this.”

Students, families, and alumni from China have donated Personal Protective Equipment (commonly known as PPE) to Grinnell College and Poweshiek County to help prevent and combat the COVID-19 virus. At last count, about 150 China residents have donated nearly 13,000 pieces of PPE, including masks, gloves, face shields, goggles, and coveralls. In addition, Grinnell alumni and parents of currents students have raised more than $10,000 to purchase PPE items.

Protective masks, gloves, and other PPE donated by students, alumni, and friends to Grinnell College.
Personal protection equipment donated by students, alumni, and families from China has arrived in Grinnell.

The first rounds of donated items have been distributed to the College, Grinnell Regional Medical Center, nursing homes, and first responders.

Getting the equipment to Grinnell required solving many logistical hurdles, and a long list of College departments and staff members have been involved in the project.

“Above all, this effort has spotlighted the humanistic focus of taking care of others,” says Sarah Smith, project lead and the College’s director of outreach programs and events. “It’s been really well received by everyone in the community. We are very thankful for the donations and for people being patient as we got the logistics worked out.”

Students lead the undertaking

When it became clear the global pandemic could wipe out the PPE supply in and around Grinnell, several people had the idea of donating equipment from China. But it’s safe to say the extraordinary coordination that followed would not be possible without Grinnell students.

Xing is the president of the College’s Chinese Student Association, which plans the annual mid-autumn carnival in the fall and a spring festival. Xinya Yang ’20 is a computer science major who was taking three classes, auditing three more, working as a research assistant, and peer educator, and looking for work after graduation. Both remain in Grinnell.

The two students initially set out on their own to collect donations, but they rather quickly came together and were joined by alumni and parent groups who had similar ambitions. With everyone on board, they embarked on creating spreadsheets to track donations, and figuring out what type of PPE was needed and where they could be purchased in China all while balancing schoolwork and dealing with the new reality of having to stay isolated practically all day.

Furthermore, Yang made 5 a.m. phone calls to China, calculated budgets and quantities, contacted factories in China to place orders, and wrote a handbook on how to wear masks.

Several other Chinese students were important contributors. Olivia Song ’23 and Kelly Kong ’23 helped with accounting while Elena Li ’23 assisted with the handbook. Kevin Qiu ’23 was instrumental in helping Yang accomplish almost every task.

“I can feel the passion for helping this county through Jack and Xinya,” Smith says. “They know how critical it was to get those relationship formed in China as quickly as possible before our PPE supplies ran out.”

Yang said the Chinese families she interacted with were happy to help.

“I remember one time telling a parent that I exceeded the budget because the shipping cost was more than expected,” she says. “The parent said money is not a problem; they want to protect the community. Protecting the community goes hand in hand with protecting their kids.”

A group photo of the 2019/2020 Chinese Student Association.
Members of the Chinese Student Association posed for a group shot on campus earlier this year. Pictured are Jiayi Chen, left, Coco Ren, Elena Li, Charles Lu, Zhenzhong “Jack” Xing, Austin Yu, Jenny Li, Olivia Song, and Kelly Kong, all of whom are class of 2023.

Alumni pitch in

Maggie Bian ’09 was in Shanghai for Chinese New Year when the virus lockdowns started in China. She wouldn’t be able to return to Hong Kong until March. Bian, head of talent for Hillhouse Capital Management, is a member of a WeChat group with other Grinnell alumni.

The group is generally pretty quiet, usually activity bubbles up around a holiday or event. When Xing reached out about donations, Bian sprang into action. About $3,000 was raised through the group in two days to purchase PPE. Bian started tagging other alums she knew and asked if they would want to donate. Soon more than $10,000 had come in.

“I’m amazed how much money was raised,” Bian says. “Alums in China really feel that Grinnell is a special place in our hearts and that this is an important mission.”

Bian and Yang also highlighted the efforts of Sirui Cao ’08, who has worked for the China CDC and is a district health administrator who works on preventing internal transmission in hospitals. Cao had excellent recommendations about what to purchase, Bian says. She helped work out the amount of each categories of PPE to buy and suggested the intended use scenario of PPEs, Yang adds.

Shipping and Distribution

The mechanics of shipping, sorting, and distributing PPE were cumbersome. Grinnell quickly drafted a letter about the donations that had to go in each package along with a customs disclaimer about liability, says Deidre Freeman Huff, alumni and donor relations assistant.

The first wave of packages cleared customs, but Bian explains that China issued new guidance for exports in April that are making things much tougher. Shipments with PPE geared for medical professional use was separated from masks that were meant for the public. The medical boxes are still stuck in customs for now, Bian says.

Shipments are mailed to the College’s Facilities Management department. Then Freeman Huff takes inventory with Yang helping to translate the labels into English. A team of Smith; Heather Cox, associate director of emergency management; Deb Shill, director of health services; and Karen Edwards, associate dean and director of international student affairs, put their heads together to determine campus needs. Masks were distributed to Student Health and Wellness (SHAW), dining services, and mail services.

The rest of the donations were picked up by Brian Paul, emergency management coordinator for Poweshiek County, and distributed at medical facilities and nursing homes across the county.

“We didn’t initially realize how much nursing homes needed these supplies as well,” Smith says. “Brian has done a wonderful job staying in communication to get the right equipment to the right health care providers.”


Smith says she was impressed by the willingness of Chinese families and alumni to help Grinnell, especially considering they had to go through their own difficulties when the virus peaked in China earlier this year.

“It’s wonderful of them to pass along the knowledge that they had to unfortunately gain by living through the pandemic,” she says.

Xing, the first-year student, sees it to as mutual help as well as kindness. His parents, and he suspects many other parents of Chinese students, were thankful for the protective measures the College took in response to the virus. Grinnell was the first college in Iowa to require most students to leave campus, transition to distance learning, and cancel all events. Since many students from China weren’t able to safely return home, the College has moved them to single residence hall rooms and ensured students have easy access to meals, resources, and technological needs.

“Grinnell did a great job in helping us stay on campus,” Xing says.

Yang also noted how many people appreciated the college decisions, but this wasn’t what motivated her or the donors. “No matter what the college decision would have been, the Chinese community would have stepped in to help,” she says.

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Learn about how to wear a mask during COVID-19. Medical providers can inquire about receiving PPE donated items by contacting Brian Paul at

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