Adventures in China

By Doris Youdelman
Editor and Publications Coordinator
College of Staten Island

Freddy Alvarez, a senior at The College of Staten Island, knew little Chinese when he first arrived at Nanjing University. But after only a few days, he had picked up enough of the language to bargain over the price of a used bicycle. "Being able to use what you learn in class out on the street is a real ego booster," he says. "It makes you feel good that you spent the time on lessons."

Now enrolled in his second semester at Nanjing, Alvarez gives the CUNY Study Abroad Program (SAP) high marks. Introduced in 1993, the Program offers students the opportunity to learn Mandarin and study Chinese culture while earning up to 17 academic credits per semester toward their degrees. Courses in history, geography, literature, and culture are taught in English by University faculty, who also accompany students on field trips to rural villages, museums, temples, factories, and other schools. The climactic field trip is a week of touring the main sites of Beijing. Some students, like Ken Chan from Baruch College, return from studying in China with a new academic focus. "I'm going down a different path now," he says of his decision to change his major from economics to journalism and history. Chan enjoys a sense of empowerment common to many SAP alumni: "This experience tested my mettle. It has made me more confident, strong, wiser." Administered for CUNY by CSI's Center for International Service, SAP is open to students nationwide through the College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS). Compared to study abroad programs in Europe and elsewhere, the cost of Nanjing is quite reasonable, and students are able to apply their financial aid awards to SAP tuition.

An equally rewarding experience is available to CUNY faculty and administrators who participate in the Shanghai Exchange Program. The forerunner of the Nanjing collaboration, the partnership with Shanghai University was established in 1985, and has allowed more than 80 CUNY participants to travel to China's great port city.

At first, the collaboration was mainly a teaching exchange. Visiting faculty from Shanghai offered instruction at CUNY in Chinese language, literature, calligraphy, poetry, history, art and design. CUNY scholars took to China expertise in business and accounting, computer-aided design, safety engineering, and English language and literature.

Over time it became evident that effective teaching methods and courses cannot always be easily translated across cultures. Accordingly, the Exchange was redesigned to involve more participants, deployed in bi-national teams, who have worked to improve the preparation of teachers, course offerings, and the quality of instruction in the fields of computer science, business, and accounting.

A recent international business project illustrates how the process works. Two investigative teams, one from CUNY and one from the Shanghai College of International Business, were assigned to explore how the College's curriculum might better serve its students and the Shanghai business community. They made reciprocal visits, deliberated, and produced numerous suggestions for better ESL instruction and new courses in marketing, investment, and banking. A new course of study in international finance was also approved as a result of this teamwork.

The personal and professional benefit for CUNY faculty has been significant. For CSI Business Prof. Laura Nowak, the experience has clearly influenced her classroom teaching. "I refer to other economic systems than just our own," she says, "and I am more sympathetic and helpful to my foreign students because I understand their situation better." Dr. Dan Smith, Professor of Development Skills at BMCC, believes his experience as project manager of a TESL exchange has deepened his sensitivity to his Asian students: "As a result of working with colleagues in China, I have an improved appreciation of what second-language students here are going through."

Shanghai University now has cooperative agreements with 56 foreign institutions, yet it considers the CUNY program to be its most effective and active faculty exchange. The Exchange continues to evolve in response to progress in ChinaUs economic modernization and the needs of CUNY students. One of the most dramatic changes has occurred on the Chinese campus itself. In May 1994 it merged with three scientific and technical institutions to form a new entity comprising 20 colleges spread out among eight campuses. The University now has 7,000 faculty, and its student body has tripled in size, totaling more than 16,000 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. In the year 2000 it will be designated one of ChinaUs 100 "key universities."

In December, the Exchange's 10th anniversary was commemorated by the visit of Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds to Shanghai and the signing of a renewed "friendship agreement" symbolizing a commitment to continued international cooperation. "I was enormously impressed by the great pace of change in Shanghai and the changes underway at the University," she reported. At Nanjing, which she subsequently visited, "I especially liked meeting the students," the Chancellor added. "I was amazed that after just one semester they have the language skills to travel across China on their own. It is good that we are able to offer such a high- quality program at a cost most of our students can afford."

CUNY's China programs foster cross-cultural competencies and offer students and participants a unique opportunity to witness firsthand the dramatic changes sweeping across mainland China. These programs also reflect the importance of the University's own Asian constituency: Close to 20,000 Asian students attend CUNY, and more than 300,000 Americans of Chinese descent live in New York City. CUNY faculty and students return home with a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of the traditions shared by one-fourth of humanity and of their own role in New York's multicultural communities.