While flying from Denver to Shanghai an airline steward asked Milen Milev how long he planned to stay in the chaotic commercial capital of China.
“A year,” Milev said.
“A year?” scoffed the steward. “You’ll never make it a year.”
That was nine months ago and the University of Colorado Denver student isn’t just making it, he’s thriving in bustling Shanghai as an intern at Gensler, the largest design firm in the world.
“People told me I wouldn’t last because of the size of the city and how different it was,” said Milev, sitting in his office overlooking the soaring Shanghai skyline. “Even though it’s fast-paced, it seems less stressful than other big cities.”
With a population topping 23 million, Shanghai is arguably the most dynamic city on earth. It epitomizes China’s strange dance between communism and capitalism. Construction is almost frantic. Luxury retailers like Hermes and Gucci line broad boulevards besides Rolls Royce and Masserati dealerships.
CU Denver graduate Jun Xia moves smoothly through this commercial mayhem. After all, it’s his hometown, one studded with buildings he’s created as regional design director of Gensler’s Shanghai office. When he started, the office had just three employees, now there are 150.
“China is like a BMW that is fast and agile,” Xia said. “It may go the wrong way but it can always turn back.”
Xia studied design at CU Denver in the mid-1980s when he was one of only a handful of Chinese students on campus. Like so many others, he was taken in by Yuk Lee, associate dean of CAP. Lee came to the U.S. on a freighter from Hong Kong in 1963 and has been instrumental in forging relationships between CAP and China for years.
“Yuk Lee was my strongest supporter as a Chinese student,” Xia said “He was a pioneer in opening doors to Chinese students and one big reason so many of them now attend CU Denver.”
Xia joined Gensler’s Denver office in 1991 and helped design Denver International Airport before setting up his Shanghai office.
The internship idea was born one night when Xia and Lee were having dinner at a top Shanghai restaurant.
“We were eating and drinking and he just said, `Why not send students to my office as interns?’’’ recalled Lee. “I said, `Okay let’s do it.’ It was that simple.”
Shanghai is also home to Tongji University which signed an agreement with CAP in 2012 for a dual-degree program. Tongji students are already studying at CU Denver while the first batch of CAP students headed to Tongji in January.
“We want to send strong students but also students who will be good ambassadors for CU Denver,” said Ann Komara, an associate professor in CAP’s landscape architecture department. “We want people who are curious, open and not easily deterred when things get difficult.”
Qiu Jiani is one of the two Tongji students at CU. She’s an intern at Gensler in Denver.
“I find the teachers here good but very strict,” she said. “At first it was hard but now I enjoy it. Since coming here I have helped design an airport in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I am working on a town square program to create gathering places in Denver.”
The Shanghai native was initially struck by how empty Denver felt compared to her crowded hometown.
“I got lost once and there was no one to ask directions from,” she said. “There are so few people in the streets.”
Sun Qian is also from Tongji.
“One thing I enjoy here are the real life scenarios we have to do in class and how they are critiqued by others,” she said. “We don’t do that in China.”
Storied city welcomes U.S. students
Just a few hours from Shanghai by bullet-train, Nanjing rises majestically from the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. The 2,500-year-old city is freighted with history, serving as imperial capital for six dynasties and surrounded by formidable city walls.
In 1937, it gained worldwide notoriety when the Japanese army invaded, raping and murdering more than 300,000 inhabitants.
While those memories remain open wounds for many Chinese, Nanjing these days is a bright, leafy city and home to one of the most educated populations in China.
Southeast University sits on a tree-lined campus near the center of town. It houses one of China’s best architecture and design schools and the site of a growing cooperation with CAP.
CU Denver students come here to take part in joint design studios where they work on projects like neighborhood revitalization near the old city walls.
Architecture and design students in classroom at Southeast University.
“My project is trying to restore part of the Nanjing City Wall,” said Shirley Xu, 25, who is getting a Master’s Degree in urban planning and development at Southeast. “We have four American and six Chinese students involved. It has been a great experience working with the Americans. For them, they get to work on really big, real life projects.”
There have been faculty exchanges as well.
Jeremy Nemeth, chairman of CAP’s Department of Planning and Design, has spent time at Southeast while academics there have visited CU Denver.
CAP’s Yuk Lee played a pivotal role in setting up this cooperation. It began when Southeast University School of Architecture Dean Wang Jianguo visited CU Denver in 1991.
“Yuk Lee picked me up at airport and I stayed at his home. It was my first time in Denver and my first trip abroad,” the dean recalled. “My first impression was that there were not many people in the streets and it was very snowy.”
Wang taught a class in urban design at CU before returning to Nanjing. He and Lee later worked out a student exchange agreement between the two universities.
“This exchange benefits us very well. Chinese students need to be more open minded about the world,” he said. “And for Americans, China is the magic country because it is developing so fast.”
John Hong, a design professor at Southeast, visited CU Denver last year and is hoping the two universities will expand their faculty exchanges.
“We don’t want the joint studios to be a one shot deal. We want them to be serious cooperation in a deep way,” he said. “Urban planning is a very dynamic field in China. American students get a real feel of that dynamism when they work on projects here.”
Liu Bo Min, professor of urban design at Southeast and a visiting scholar at Harvard, said an urban planning education these days is global, not local.
“Working in the U.S. helped me become a better teacher,” he said. “In China higher education is all about lectures. In the U.S. there is a lot more discussion.”
Southeast has a storied past. It was once headed by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Chinese who were later routed by Mao Zedong.
“Southeast University has one of the oldest urban planning departments in China. It is the center of urban planning in China,” said Jianqiang Yang, director of Urban Planning at Southeast. “Urban planning is hugely popular in China right now. When our students graduate they can usually find a job.”
And finding a job is the ultimate goal for most Chinese and American students.
“Many view these exchanges as excellent chances for instructional and cultural enrichment and those are very noble things,” Lee said. “But there is a very practical reason we developed these relationships with China and that is to make our students more marketable. And that’s what we have done.”