It is not every day that a college student is presented with the opportunity to learn the Chinese language and study the culture while living in Beijing. Even less often is the opportunity free.
A partnership between Fort Hays State University and the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing provided such an opportunity for three FHSU students this summer. Diane Becker, Lenora senior; Brian Carlson, Manhattan senior; and Mark Colwell, Hays senior, participated in an exchange program that allowed them to study in China while UIBE footed the bill.
The students' tuition, room, board and airfare was paid.
Groundwork for the program was laid in September 2001, when FHSU and UIBE became partner institutions. Students from UIBE began to attend FHSU in fall 2003.
"The president of UIBE wanted to extend to FHSU students the opportunity to travel to China and take classes," said Cindy Elliott, assistant provost for strategic partnerships and dean of distance learning. "The all-expenses-paid offer was granted to FHSU in 2004 for the summer of 2005."
Colwell, a political science major, has several Chinese friends at FHSU, and they had been encouraging him to visit their homeland, even before this opportunity arose.
"I really wanted to go, anyway, and then my teacher said 'free trip,'" he said.
Carlson also was excited to be one of the final three.
"Sometime after graduation I plan to be a consultant and would like to work in China," he said. "I feel with my INT technology background and also being able to speak fluent Chinese, it will be much easier to conduct business there."
Becker, however, had some difficult decisions to make before accepting the invitation.
"I had to choose between a dream internship for the summer, a dream job as Custer Hall director and this opportunity," she said. "I definitely made the right decision."
That decision seemed so right that Becker has postponed her senior year at FHSU in order to continue her studies of the Chinese language at UIBE. She is also teaching an English class.
The language barrier was perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the trio's experience, at least when they first arrived in Beijing.
They solved that problem "by having a Chinese friend write our destination for us in Chinese, which we would then hand to the taxi driver," said Carlson. "Later in the month, when we spoke some Chinese, we could talk to the taxi driver and tell him where we wanted to go."
Being able to give their own directions didn't come easily, however. The students attended language classes for three hours each morning, learning characters and pinyin. Pinyin, according to Colwell, is "a pronunciation key based on English that helps you verbalize the Chinese symbols."
"Chinese is difficult to learn because of the importance of intonation, multiple meanings for the same word and, of course, character," said Becker.
Despite these difficulties, all three were unanimous in that they had fun studying the language and enjoyed seeing progress as they learned more words and characters.
"When you are able to read even part of a sign, it's a very gratifying experience," said Becker. "Watching your progress motivates you to study harder and learn more."
"When you can successfully communicate with people in their own language, it's a good feeling," agreed Carlson.
Not all of their class time was devoted to learning the language. During the afternoon, they often attended two-and-a-half-hour classes over such topics as cross-cultural management and Chinese history, economics and education.
"It was really interesting to learn about all of these topics from a Chinese perspective," said Colwell. "The one disadvantage was that such a small amount of time was devoted to each subject."
Learning about Chinese culture by experiencing it firsthand was an opportunity that Becker, Carlson and Colwell couldn't pass up. They spent their free afternoons and weekends traveling around Beijing and the surrounding area and visiting many of the traditional tourist attractions such as the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Llama Temple, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. They also went to the Peking Opera.
Getting around the city was neither difficult, once the language barrier was crossed, nor expensive.
"The public transportation system in Beijing is excellent and very cheap," said Carlson. "Bus rides are one yuan -- about 12 cents -- and a subway ride is three yuan."
"I am comfortable going around the city alone," Becker said. She uses the bus system daily and the subway nearly every weekend.
One area where the three did have a problem, according to Colwell, was ordering food.
"We had a terrible time picking food at first, even with a picture menu," he said. "And there's not a lot of variety like there is with American food. It was really good, though."
Another difference between the countries is the living conditions. While Becker, Carlson and Colwell lived in the international dorms and had such amenities as beds, air conditioning and private bathrooms, it's a different story for the Chinese students.
"In Beijing, the foreigners are often separated from the Chinese. There are separate dormitories, apartment buildings and shopping districts. Americans are able to live more richly here because of the exchange rate," Becker explained. "The quality of life for an average Chinese person is much lower. For example, undergraduate students live in a dormitory room with seven other people. The walls and floors are cement and the beds don't come with mattresses. They must walk to the public shower house to bathe."
Becker also learned to what extent the Chinese government can censor its citizens. Her marketing professor is very popular at UIBE due to his knowledge and experience.
"The Communist Party banned him from Beijing and confined him to Tibet for three years because of the information he taught in his courses. They allowed him to come back to teach, but he is confined to the university and the immediate surrounding area," she said.
Part of his popularity is due to the fact that "he is determined to let every student know the truth about any question we have about China. As you can imagine, the truth, rather than the proper answer, is difficult to find here," Becker said.
Despite this control, Becker, Carlson and Colwell all found China to be a pleasant place.
"Everyone has a horrible misconception about China. It was neat to see it's not an evil empire. It seemed free," Colwell said.
They had social freedom, he explained, but not political.
"Just walking down the street, the cops don't do much; they pretty much leave you alone," he said. "However, they didn't discuss Chinese politics because they aren't allowed to, but they would discuss American politics with us."
All three made good friends in China and plan to remain in touch with them for a long time.
They also found a common bond with many of the Chinese students they met -- Tiger Cards, the FHSU student ID card.
"It was really cool that even though these students lived on the other side of the world, they had a Tiger Card and were Fort Hays students," said Colwell.
Becker was amazed to see the impact that FHSU has had on post-secondary education in China.
"FHSU is the only American university offering an accredited American degree in China," said Becker. "The program is continually expanding and the benefits are ever increasing for both sides."
Accepting the exchange program experience included agreeing to give a presentation to other students upon returning to FHSU. Becker, Carlson and Colwell have not yet set a date for their presentation, but they expect it will take place sometime in late January or early February.
The application process included filling out a form and going through an interview process. A selection committee narrowed the pool from nine applicants to five. FHSU President Edward H. Hammond made the final decision on which three students would receive the privilege of attending UIBE.
"This was a good experience for them," said Elliott. "The three are ambassadors for FHSU and for America."
Elliott and Provost Larry Gould recently returned from Beijing, where they had the opportunity to catch up with Becker and some of her friends.
"The students told us that the international education program at UIBE is of a higher quality than that of Beijing University, which is like the Harvard of China," Elliott said.
She was not certain if the program would be offered again.
"We certainly hope we can," she said, "but it won't be at the expense of UIBE."
Colwell also hopes other students will have the same opportunity he did.
"If you're looking at study abroad, China is on the forefront economically," he said. "If you want the business sector, go to China."
He hopes to return to China eventually, but "I'd like to visit parts of Europe first. I definitely would love to go back, though."
Carlson plans to return to UIBE for the spring 2006 semester as a paying student.