They wandered wide-eyed through the Hall of Fragrant Splendor, lingering among a sumptuous collection of classical Chinese paintings adorning the walls and ceilings.
Nearby, elderly women danced along a lotus-filled lake while men flew kites shaped like dragons from stone bridges.
Sarah Shoulak, 22, drank in the scene playing out at the Summer Palace, an imperial Xanadu of grand Chinese architecture sitting serenely amid the chaos of Beijing.
“International travel like this takes you to a whole new level and from an anthropological point of view it puts you in your place,” said the University of Colorado Denver student. “As a communications major I wanted to go somewhere where it’s a challenge to communicate and in China you are really pushed.”
It was November and Shoulak and five fellow students were spending a semester at CU Denver’s International College Beijing (ICB) on the campus of the China Agricultural University.
For months they had been immersed in Chinese culture. They struggled with the complex, tonal language and experienced life inside a communist country with over a billion inhabitants. Pedestrians, cars, bicycles, motorbikes filled the streets and sidewalks. The students swiftly acquired the razor-sharp reflexes allowing them to narrowly avoid collisions from every angle, including from behind.
And then there was the food.
“You put things in your mouth you would never imagine like pig brains, bats, scorpion and duck intestines,” said Peace Akpai, 21, of Aurora. “China is so beautiful, but it’s so different.”
For the Chinese, none of the students were as different as Akpai. Originally from Ghana, she was the object of friendly curiosity wherever she went.
“Because I am a person of color they wanted to touch my skin,” she said. “I don’t mind. They are very polite and they don’t see many people who look like me.”
The ICB program, founded in 1994, is unique in many ways.
“We were the first international program approved in China,” said Patrick Dodge, associate chair of the CU Denver Department of Communications who is based in China. “Each year we get a little bigger. In 2007, we had 75 students and now we have 225. Our faculty numbers continue to increase. We are getting students who come back again and again. They come here and fall in love with China.”
That’s not hard to do.
With a recorded history stretching back over 5,000 years and a civilization that has spawned everything from paper, to gunpowder to Confucianism, China continues to be one of the most dynamic nations on earth.
“China feels like America in the 19th century,” said Stephen Hartnett, chairman of the CU Denver Communications Department which offers a major atICB. “It’s new and rapidly developing. I believe China is on the precipice of the biggest political transformation the world has ever seen.”
That transformation might be driven by programs like ICB which not only allow American students to experience life in China, but let qualified Chinese students receive an American education.
The experience is often life-changing.
“For me that’s the highlight of my job, seeing the Chinese students open up,” Dodge said. “I see a huge change in their outgoingness, their confidence. I see them develop the ability to think critically.”
The students can major in economics and communications.
Chinese students are often surprised by the American style of teaching where discussion, debate and disagreement are encouraged. They are more used to sitting quietly in class, deferring to the teacher and even applauding when a lecture is over.
“American teachers are very friendly with us, not as formal as the Chinese,” said Michael Li, a communications major who hopes to study at CU Denver. “If they teach us something they will let us critique what they say. This isn’t the way in China.”
Judy Zhu, a sophomore from Beijing, wants to be an `international journalist’ and plans to attend CU Denver next year.
“I want to see how people live around the world and this program lets us consult more with American teachers,” she said. “I am going to study at CU Denver. I want to see if I fit in.”
Zhu has a fondness for the New Yorker magazine, especially the cartoons or as she put it, `the comics.’
“I’d love to get an internship,” she said. “Maybe not at the New Yorker, but at some other publication.”
A major world force
China is CU Denver’s biggest study abroad partner.
Aside from ICB, the university has a dual degree program between the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) and Tongji University in Shanghai. CAP has another partnership with Southeast University in Nanjing, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Zhejiang University College of Medicine in Hangzhou allowing exchanges between the two institutions.
“China is a major world force right now and we need to be engaged,” said Carolyn North, assistant vice-chancellor for international affairs for the University of Colorado. “We have a significant number of Chinese scholars here right now. The School of Engineering is now bringing in undergrads from China.”
North said Chinese students at CU have taken on leadership positions in student government.
“They are fully integrated into American life,” she said. “Our job is to expose our students not just to China but to all parts of the world. We want a truly global scope with partnerships the world over.”
Gaining new perspectives
The American ICB students live in dorms on campus. Their instructors often live on a different floor in the same building.
“This has been a fantastic experience,” said Kirsten Lindholm, who teaches fundamentals of communication and mass media. “I would tell any CU Denver student that this is a once in a lifetime experience that will give them a performance edge in the world. “
CU’s Nune Hovhannisya teaches economics.
“The appeal for me was being able to go somewhere that I didn’t know,” she said. “I get to teach economics in China, one of the biggest economies on earth. The Chinese students are getting a different perspective. I don’t want them to be just consumers but producers of ideas.”
ICB students study the Chinese language and during breaks travel the country. Along the way, many have realized that much of what they knew about China before coming was wrong.
“China isn’t some lurking bogeyman looking to take advantage of us,” said Melissa Miles, a political science major. “China will do what’s in China’s best interest but they are people just like us.”
Miles, who has a keen interest in foreign affairs, said she’d like to teach in China.
“I really like the Chinese students. They view the world so differently that they make me question my own concepts of life and family,” she said. “I’d like to work in foreign affairs in some capacity and here in China I am getting a handle on where the world is heading.”
On a cold night inside a drafty classroom – the Chinese use heat sparingly – the six Americans gathered for a communications class taught by Patrick Dodge. They talked a bit about their views of China and why they came.
Denver native Logan Thompson, 21, said China offered an intimate view of a developing nation.
“As an economics major I couldn’t think of a better place to study,” he said. “I can walk the streets here and literally see development happening before my eyes.”
Nancy Tran of Aurora said despite all the news of a rapidly developing China, many Chinese are emigrating to other countries.
“China is moving on a better path for their people but many are still leaving because they can’t live the kind of life they want,” she said.
Each came for a different reason except Akpai.
“I think I am the only person without a specific reason for coming here,” she said. “I saw a flyer on campus that said, `Study in Beijing’ and so I came.”
And the experience changed her.
“China is much deeper than I thought,” she said. “In the U.S. we treat foreigners differently. We expect them to learn English. But here the Chinese help us with everything. It has really
changed my views about the way foreigners are treated in the U.S.”
While every student will leave China with a wealth of perspectives into a dynamic, complex culture, they will also gain new insights into themselves.
“No matter what your mindset is going into the trip it is guaranteed to change by the end of it,” Shoulak said. “The Chinese language no longer seems intimidating. Their food no longer seems scary. Their people no longer seem unapproachable. China has become a part of my past, my collection of experiences. What I have learned here will influence me, for the better, for the rest of my life.”