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UI Growing Its Connection with China through Expanding Programs

Confucius Institute, study abroad and research trips, and increased international recruitment part of effort to build relationships

For Li Ang, the writing was on the wall. It was August 2011. He’d just traveled for nearly a full day, a journey that started from his home in Jinan, a bustling city of 6 million people in China’s coastal Shandong province. From Seattle, he’d get his first real look at the United States through the window of a propeller plane taking him to a new life on the Palouse at the University of Idaho.

Moscow, Idaho, was … different. Small town. New faces. Different food. Tricky language. So after a night at a local hotel — the dormitories hadn’t opened yet for the fall term — it was with some unsettled feelings that he visited the International Programs Office on campus. There, on the wall, in Chinese characters, was a simple, reassuring message: Welcome.

“I had flown 14 to 16 hours — alone,” Li said. “No one had talked to me. I’m the foreigner. When I came here, and I saw those characters on the wall, I thought that this place was warm and comfortable.”

Four years later, Li graduated with his bachelor’s in marketing and a new proficiency in English, with plans to stay on and complete a statistics minor before launching a career, he hopes, in international trade. He’s one of a new generation of students, scholars and graduates who participated in UI’s increased engagement with a rapidly developing China.

A Two-Way Street

In the past decade, China has tripled the number of international students it hosts, becoming a top international destination for UI students, and the first choice among Asian countries.

The College of Art and Architecture (CAA) is one of the many UI colleges and departments with robust study abroad and other opportunities in China. Connie Boyer, a native of Lewiston, joined a CAA summer program in China in 2013, touring the country while discussing readings, meeting Chinese academics and even teaming up with a group of student designers at a Chinese university to plan the redesign of a rural village. That immersion led Boyer to an internship with a leading Beijing architectural firm, applying her skills and creativity to the country’s building boom.

“The chance to be immersed in this tidal wave was something I could not pass up,” Boyer said. “I was a part of projects that I would never get the opportunity to work on in the states, not this early at least.”

Boyer is continuing her career as a graphic designer with a Chinese travel company and enjoying expatriate life in Beijing, a city she describes as “vast, loud, wild and full of thoughtful life.”

“China is an undeniable force in this world,” she said, “and the better we understand that, the better we can forge good and lasting relationships with them. I am a firm believer that this world is small, and getting smaller. We all need to work together as a team if we can ever consider making important changes.”

Boyer is one of many Vandal graduates making a mark in China. In 2008, Jacob Parker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He was selected as a Martin Scholar in UI's Martin Institute, located in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, and his senior research project examined China’s policy of sovereignty in response to health crises.

Parker landed a role with the USA Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Now, he is the director and chief representative for the U.S.-China Business Council based in Shanghai, a job that puts him near the center of China’s bustling export climate.

“China is a place that’s extremely exciting right now,” Parker said. “There’s an enormous amount of opportunity here.”

That growth and opportunity is opening doors for Chinese students across the Pacific as well. Li is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who choose to study in the United States, and one of the more than 200 students who found their way to the University of Idaho for 2014-15. Nationwide, Idaho has the fastest rate of growth for international student enrollment.

That growth is partly fueled by a caring community and academic opportunities. Li volunteers with the Chinese Student Association, a group of students who organize social outings, find study and tutoring support and put together annual celebrations such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and a Chinese New Year Gala. Meanwhile, the Integrated Business Curriculum at the College of Business and Economics has him work closely with U.S.-born students on real-world projects. Li compares that cross-cultural experience — sharing different perspectives while completing a project — to the two sides of a single coin: When you work together, you get a view of both sides.

“It’s kind of common sense,” he said. Cooperation is very important, and people need to work together — you finish your part, and I finish my part. Business school teaches you how to join a team. That’s very important for the future.”

Connie Boyer, UI alumna
Connie Boyer, College of Art and Architecture alumna.

Growing Partnerships

The trans-Pacific exchange is successful for students like Boyer, Parker and Li in part because UI continues to deepen its network of partnerships with Chinese institutions. Throughout China, recruiters spread the word about UI. Transfer and articulation agreements with five major universities offer Chinese students the chance to complete two or three years of a UI degree in China — often with UI curriculum — then complete their degree in Idaho as Vandals. More and more Chinese students are taking advantage of those opportunities.

“China is an important source of international enrollment for us,” UI President Chuck Staben said. “They’ve prioritized internationalizing their students and their curriculum, and their students have great intellect and energy. That enrollment is positive for our American-born students, too, as they’re exposed to different worldviews and the opportunities that may be created out of personal relationships.”

Increasingly, graduate and post-graduate scholars from China have found the University of Idaho a place to shine. In fall 2014, China was UI’s second-leading country of origin for international faculty, after India.

Professor Scott Slovic, chair of the English Department and a Fulbright Scholar who taught in China, is one UI faculty member who has built connections in his field with Chinese institutions and scholars. He travels to China often, including a six-week trip in 2014, and has witnessed an upsurge in the study of literature and the environment, or ecocriticism, in that country. Since 2012, he’s helped bring more than 15 visiting scholars from China to UI to study ecocriticism and related fields. These scholars are often supported by the Chinese government — usually through China Scholarship Council funding — or by their home universities.

“International engagement helps create a vibrant university,” Slovic said. “It gives students and faculty members professional opportunities and connections. Meeting people from other parts of the world is exciting and enriching. I see only advantages to increasing the number of international scholars on our campus.”

“China is an undeniable force in this world, and the better we understand that, the better we can forge good and lasting relationships with them. I am a firm believer that this world is small, and getting smaller. We all need to work together as a team if we can ever consider making important changes.”

— Connie Boyer, UI alumna

Confucius Institute

In April 2013, after several years of discussion and relationship building, the Confucius Institute opened its doors at UI. One of fewer than 100 nationwide, the Confucius Institute is a joint venture between the University of Idaho, the South China University of Technology and Hanban, a Chinese organization that promotes Chinese language and cultural learning.

With a mission to promote the teaching and learning of Chinese culture and language, the Confucius Institute offers a broad array of programming at UI and in the community. Often working with the Chinese Student Association, the institute holds cultural performances and major celebrations every year, including the Mid-Autumn Festival, Spring Festival and Global Confucius Institute Day on Sept. 27. Frequent Chinese movie nights in downtown Moscow showcase the country’s cinema. A Chinese food club provides tasty ways to learn more about cuisine. On some Saturday mornings at the Moscow Farmer’s Market, community members can experience tai chi, the martial art of self-defense and wellness, taught by institute staff.

Those cultural and language opportunities are available for the entire university community and beyond. For the institute’s co-director, Matt Wappett, exposing students and community members to Chinese culture, and especially to the Chinese language, is critical for success in a rapidly globalizing world.

“I think Asian languages, especially Chinese, are going to open up so many opportunities for people,” he said. “Having a basic understanding of Chinese cultures and the Chinese language gives you a very marketable skill. You’d be surprised where you can go if you speak Chinese.”

The institute’s teaching staff — five full-time Chinese teachers and two martial arts instructors — offer university-level language classes and cultural instruction to UI students and community members. A major in the language may be ready as early as next year. The institute also offers classes to younger students at Moscow High School and two other area schools. The classes are packed — no small feat for a language with a reputation for difficulty, according to Jing Tian, who came from China via the South China University of Technology in fall 2014 to teach in Moscow.

“The biggest challenge is its reputation as a difficult language, so even before people start to learn it they say, ‘It’s so difficult,’” Tian said. “But once they follow the courses and do the exercises, they start to get a sense of what’s going on, and it’s not so difficult. Chinese is a language that gets easier once you get into it.”

As it ramps up its efforts, the Confucius Institute has also evolved to offer robust, year-round programming. In June, 17 students from Moscow High School and the university joined a two-week Confucius Institute tour to Guangzhou and Beijing — an eye-opening trip, and a chance to deploy emerging language skills and be immersed in the culture they’d studied. Community-based summer camps also teach children some basics of Chinese language and culture, and the institute reaches out to Upward Bound high school students, including many would-be first-generation college attendees.

The Confucius Institute is also initiating faculty programs in China; the first UI scholar will visit China through the institute in summer 2016. This past summer, Wappett and his co-director, Hexian Xue, traveled to Boise to meet with the Idaho Department of Commerce and examine how the institute could support businesses and economic development in Idaho. China is Idaho’s third-largest trading partner, the recipient of $481 million worth of goods in 2014. The institute is expanding language and cultural instruction across Idaho – two teachers will be based in Boise in January 2016.

“Having the Confucius Institute at UI is the perfect match,” Wappett said. “We have the name recognition and the statewide impact to really leverage the opportunities that the Confucius Institute provides. We’re the state’s leading university, and the Confucius Institute is China’s face to the world.”

Tian is also optimistic.

“We are reaching out to more people, and that means we can influence more people. By teaching language and culture we are opening the door for more people to the bigger world.”

Traditional Chinese garb.
A performer from the Binghamton Chinese Opera, hosted by UI’s Confucius Institute.

UI Trip to China

Last December, Staben and other UI leaders went to China to open that door wider. They visited Harbin, site of the new Nestle Dairy Farming Institute. In Guangzhou, they toured the education “megacenter” at the South China University of Technology, which hosts UI’s Confucius Institute partnership. At the international Confucius Institute conference in Xiamen, Staben gave a presentation to the conference on the role of the Confucius Institute in Idaho.

His message focused on the abundant opportunities the institute is positioned to deliver for Idaho and beyond — for students, for scholarship and for shared prosperity.

“The academic, economic and cultural landscape of the U.S. is increasingly connected to China,” Staben said. “The opportunities for UI to be a leader are almost endless. That’s going to open doors for a lot of progress in our state and our world.”

Article by Brian Keenan, University Communications and Marketing

“The academic, economic and cultural landscape of the U.S. is increasingly connected to China,” Staben said. “The opportunities for UI to be a leader are almost endless. That’s going to open doors for a lot of progress in our state and our world.”

—Chuck Staben


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 208-885-6291

Fax: 208-885-5841


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