Chinese classes, study abroad in China booming as China’s prominence continues to grow
Hardly a day goes by when China isn’t in the news—whether it be for its booming economy, unfortunate problems with product recalls, or the 2008 Summer Olympics.
It’s a point not lost on students at Southwestern University. Like their counterparts at colleges across the country, Southwestern students see knowledge of China as a ticket to success in the 21st century. Southwestern has risen to the occasion by continuing to expand its offerings of courses related to China. In addition to the language itself, students can now choose from courses on Chinese history, Chinese literature, the Chinese economy, Chinese politics, Chinese art history and even Chinese calligraphy.
“For students interested in China, Southwestern has one of the better programs among small liberal arts colleges,” says Provost Jim Hunt.
History of offerings
While some colleges and universities are scrambling to offer courses related to China, efforts to build a curriculum at Southwestern related to China and Asia date back more than two decades.
In 1984, Margaret Shilling, wife of then-President Roy Shilling, and Paula Oliver, wife of then-Provost Ben Oliver, went with a group of six faculty members to Wuhan University in China as part of a broader effort to establish relationships with universities in other countries. Among the faculty members who went was Ken Roberts, professor of economics and holder of the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Chair in Economics.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” Roberts says. He applied for—and received—a Fulbright Scholarship to study in China in 1987. Ever since then, he has focused his research on migration in China, and taught a popular course on the Chinese economy. Roberts has returned to China almost every year since 1984 to conduct research and present papers at conferences. He published his first article on Chinese migration in 1997 and has published 12 since.
In 1988–89, Southwestern received funds from the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities to sponsor a year-long “Focus on Asia” program. Eighteen faculty members traveled to China for six weeks in the summer of 1988 to help them gather material that would prepare them to teach courses related to China.
“We were in China when few other undergraduate liberal arts colleges were there,” says Roberts, who led the 1988 faculty trip. Upon returning from the trip, Roberts organized a Freshman Symposium that focused on China. That same fall, Steve Davidson was hired to teach East Asian history. The following year—1989—Southwestern offered Chinese language classes for the first time.
Davidson currently teaches three courses on Chinese history in addition to two courses on Japanese history. His personal research focuses on China’s Early Imperial political culture, especially during the early Han dynasty (second century B.C.). Davidson organized an additional Freshman Symposium that focused on China in 1992.
Although interest in China dropped after the Tian’anmen Square massacre in 1989, Davidson says it picked up again in the mid-1990s. “For students born after Tian’anmen Square, China is an economic miracle and a fascinating area of the world,” he says.
After President Jake B. Schrum came to Southwestern in July 2000, the University approved a tenure-track position in Chinese language and literature. Carl Robertson was hired to fill this position in 2002. When Robertson began teaching in the fall of 2002, he had 13 students in his classes. This fall there are 55 students taking Chinese. There is so much demand for Chinese that a part-time professor has been hired to help handle the load.
“Chinese is a terribly difficult language, but Carl has done a great job making it fun,” says Provost Jim Hunt. Hunt says many students are now taking Chinese to fulfill their language requirement. Students get so interested in it, he says, they decide to take a few more classes and earn a minor in Chinese. Southwestern has offered a minor in Chinese since 2003.
In addition to teaching Chinese, Robertson continues his research, in which he is investigating the commentary tradition of Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese story cycle. He also serves as advisor to the Association of Students Interested in Asia (ASIA), which is becoming increasingly popular on campus. Club members gather to celebrate Asian holidays such as the Autumn Moon Festival and Lunar New Year, and sponsor a “language table” in the Commons each Thursday at noon. They also take field trips to destinations such as the Austin Chinatown Center and Houston’s Chinatown. One particularly popular activity is Robertson’s annual calligraphy demonstration.
“I joined ASIA as a first-year student mainly for the opportunity to eat good Asian food, and I had no idea how much I would learn about Asian culture or that I would form such close friendships with other members,” says club president Katy Siciliano, a senior who is majoring in animal behavior. “I have enjoyed being a part of this organization because of its welcoming nature and efforts to involve the campus community in events that celebrate diversity. I have learned so much from my friends in ASIA club, from how to eat delicious Vietnamese soup to the traditions involved in Chinese New Year celebrations.”
Grant support for new programs
Having a tenure-track professor teaching Chinese enabled Southwestern to successfully compete for several grants to bring additional East Asian specialists to campus. Davidson wrote a successful grant proposal to the Luce Foundation to fund a new tenure-track position in East Asian politics and governments. Alisa Gaunder was hired to fill this position in 2002. Gaunder now directs Southwestern’s program in International Studies, which offers students the opportunity to focus on East Asia, Europe or Latin America. Southwestern has an endowment from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to support the East Asia component of this program.
Davidson wrote a second grant proposal to the Freeman Foundation that provided initial funding for a new tenure-track faculty position in East Asian art history. Diana Tenckhoff was hired to fill this position in 2003. Southwestern is one of only two universities in Texas that have a position in East Asian art history.
“The full-time appointment in Asian art gives Southwestern’s art history program a very unusual commitment to a multicultural education, covering the history of ancient Greek and Roman art, modern Euro-American art, and East Asian art, as well as the history of architecture,” says Thomas Howe, chair of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History. “The offerings in East Asian art clearly add breadth, as well as interesting perspectives, to Southwestern’s art history program.”
Few textbooks are available in the area of Asian art history, so Tenckhoff develops much of her course materials herself. “She has a difficult subject to cover—one that is very alien to most of our students,” Howe says. “But because of her efforts, the material and culture is a familiar part of these students’ broader world by the time they finish their first course.”
Although First-Year Seminars (which evolved from the Freshman Symposiums) no longer focus on a single topic, several faculty members offer First-Year Seminars related to China. Davidson teaches one called “Global Powers: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Empires,” which includes China as well as the United States and Great Britain. Robertson teaches one titled “Bringing Across: Writing About Chinese in English,” in which students read works ranging from those of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius to presentday novelist Amy Tan.
Hunt says the challenge now is how to meet the continued demand for courses related to China. “China is a huge economic machine,” he says. “If we did not have an emphasis on it, we would be lacking in the way we prepare our students.” He says the University is looking for funding sources to add additional courses, particularly in the area of Chinese literature.
Study Abroad in China
The growing number of students studying Chinese on campus has led to a growing number of students studying abroad in China. Southwestern sent its first student to China for study in 1997–98 and since then, a total of 23 students have gone to the country.
“China is now one of our most popular destinations for study abroad,” says Sue Mennicke, director of intercultural learning.
Mennicke also credits Robertson with increasing student interest in China. “Carl is enormously enthusiastic about China,” she says. “He also has changed his classes to better prepare students for study abroad.”
This fall, there are five Southwestern students studying in China. Among them is Rob Goldey, a senior who is doing an independent study major in Chinese. Goldey hopes to teach Chinese in high school after he graduates. “I’ve found that Chinese is a language that cannot be mastered as quickly by English students as the European languages can be, and I want to encourage learning Chinese earlier on so that college-level Chinese students can more easily move through China,” he says.
Shannon Foster, a junior majoring in economics with a minor in Chinese, also is studying in Beijing this semester. “The classes I’ve taken at Southwestern definitely piqued my interest in studying abroad in China,” Foster says. “Classes such as 20th Century History of China, Chinese Painting, The Chinese Economy, and my Chinese language classes made me want to know more about the art, culture and economy of China, and studying abroad just seemed like the next step. From what I’ve seen so far of Beijing, it was well worth the trip.”
Foster hopes to go to graduate school in economics and do something related to international business. “I am fascinated by the economic progress China has made over the past couple of decades,” she says. “There are growing business opportunities in China, and I’d love to be a part of them.”
Working in China
Several Southwestern alumni have already pursued career opportunities in China. After graduating from Southwestern in 2004, Alejandra Zamorano moved to China and taught English for seven months. She also worked part-time at the Mexican Embassy in Bejiing as an assistant to the consul.
“I absolutely loved China! The culture, the language, the food, the people—everything,” Zamorano says. “It was an amazing experience, and I would love to go back.”
Today, Zamorano works at The University of Texas at Austin as an international advisor, helping American students who plan to study abroad in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico and Central America.
“My current position allows me to use all that I learned both at Southwestern and abroad,” says Zamorano, who graduated with a triple major in psychology, French and Spanish. She is taking Chinese language classes at UT and says she plans to study Chinese and learn more about the country and its people.
Matthew Glenn ’07 moved to China after graduating from Southwestern in June with a degree in political science. He worked briefly for an Internet startup company in Shanghai and recently took a new position in which he writes reports for companies in America who are interested in buying Chinese manufacturing goods.
“I wanted to do something different than teaching English,” Glenn says. “The education I got at Southwestern taught me how to pick up and talk the lingo of many different industries. With a liberal arts education, you are one step ahead of everyone else because you can make connections to different things that others don’t see.”
Glenn says he may eventually attend law school, but in the meantime his goal is to enjoy being in China and to become fluent in Chinese.
On to graduate school
Southwestern students also are pursuing graduate work related to China. Kris Ercums ’93 is completing his Ph.D. in Chinese art history at the University of Chicago, which has the country’s top program in this area. He recently landed a job as the curator of Asian art at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas (see story page 25). Ercums received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in China in 2006–07.
Michael Jeffers ’98 is working on a graduate degree in journalism at The University of Texas. He wants to return as a reporter to China, where he studied while doing his international studies major at Southwestern.
Two Southwestern graduates are doing graduate work in Nanging, China, this year. Ryan Borgeson ’07, who graduated with the first independent study major in Chinese, was accepted at the prestigious Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, which is jointly administered by Nanjing University and The Johns Hopkins University. Michele Murphy ’05, was awarded a Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs to study at Nanjing University this year. Murphy is majoring in security and intelligence studies at the University of Pittsburgh and will also receive an Asian Studies Certificate.
“I truly value the education I received at Southwestern and feel that it helped prepare me to pursue further postgraduate studies,” Murphy says.