Red meets blue as China and UAF team up for education

By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter

UAF’s decision to partner with several Chinese universities is not a surprising one. China is the second largest economy in the world, behind only the United States, and is home to one-sixth of the world’s population. As China rockets into superpower status, the Chinese people grow hungrier for the things a growing nation demands, such as energy. That’s where UAF enters the equation. UAF boasts world-class engineering programs, teaching the kind of expertise the Chinese people need. So each year, between 10 and 12 students come from China to study at UAF. UAF’s relationship with China is so important that Chancellor Rogers spent part of his winter break visiting there, and he discussed that trip when he addressed the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce in January.

With China becoming increasingly important, in both the global community and at UAF, the real surprise is that UAF doesn’t do more in that area. UAF offers two years of Chinese language instruction, taught by adjunct instructor Rosalind Kan. That’s not enough to qualify for a minor, much less a major. Kan said that many of her students would re-take the classes in order to get more time and practice with the language. Kan was born in China, but moved to Alaska in 1972. A retired engineer for the Department of Transportation, Kan started teaching Chinese at UAF 10 years ago. She said that her students run the “whole gamut” of majors, from engineering, linguistics, the arts, business and others. Kan feels that her students are currently limited in how much Chinese they can learn at UAF.

“I’d really like to see UAF develop in this area,” Kan said. In addition to teaching at UAF, Kan started teaching Chinese at West Valley High School a few years ago, where students can earn college credit taking her class. “It’s very important to prepare our young people,” Kan said. She added that she would like to see more of her American students go to China to further their language education.

That is a very real opportunity for UAF students, according to John Lehman, Director of International Programs at UAF. Lehman, himself a fluent Chinese speaker, came to UAF in the 80s. In 1987, he worked with the School of Management on expanding business students’ understanding of the burgeoning country of China. With both a business and Chinese language background, Lehman has become UAF’s pointman for expanding the university’s relationship with China. Lehman said that last year, there were a dozen full-paid scholarships open for a student to spend a year in China studying. The scholarships covered room and board, tuition, and everything but the airfare. Not one scholarship was awarded, because nobody applied for them. Lehman said students should seriously consider taking UAF up on that opportunity, no matter their discipline.

“It will cost them almost nothing,” Lehman said, yet they will become “hugely competitive” in the job market. Lehman himself was the recipient of such an opportunity. In the 1960s, the Department of Defense was looking for people to learn languages they deemed important. Chinese was one of them. Lehman said that because he took Chinese, he graduated from grad school with no student loans.

While UAF students have thus far been reluctant to journey abroad to China, the Chinese have not been. Lehman visits China two to three times a year, and he goes there each spring to deliver an intensive, month-long crash course on the English language and American culture to the dozen or so students who will come to UAF the following July as part of the “Two-Plus-Two” exchange program. Under that program, Chinese students spend their first two years at their home university, such as the China University of Petroleum Beijing (CUPB). They then spend the next two years studying at UAF. Lehman said that Chinese students and instructors alike value the difference in education styles that UAF provides. Whereas Chinese education depends on lectures and rote memorization, Lehman said that UAF offered a more hands-on, practical approach to learning.

Students visiting from China face a variety of difficulties. Lehman said that the cost of living for Chinese students is five times more expensive than in China. As non-residents, they pay the larger out-of-state tuition fees. Those fees add up, especially since they must take at least 18 credits a semester if they hope to graduate in four years.

The second major hurdle is the language barrier. Fluency in English is important, so the students arrive in July so that they can get six weeks of practical experience with the language before the semester starts.

There are currently no plans to expand the Chinese language program at UAF. According to Lehman, it’s a “chicken and the egg” scenario. UAF would offer a more robust Chinese curriculum if there was interest, but it’s difficult to determine interest without offering that curriculum.

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