Education abroad lets you see home in new light
• Source: Global Times
• [22:26 August 25 2009]
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Along with the emerging economy of China, Chinese language and culture are becoming more popular subjects of study in the US, and more students are coming to China to study. The following is an interview by the Global Times (GT) reporter Chen Chenchen with Mark Lenhart (Lenhart), director of CET Academic Programs, a Washington-based study abroad organization founded in 1982.
GT: How did CET start its business in China? Why do you bring students to China, rather than simply teaching them Chinese in the US?
Lenhart: The roots of CET are really in China. Our first Chinese language program was in Beijing in the summer of 1982. We expanded in China in the 1980s and 1990s, but CET did not begin to operate programs outside of China until 1997.
We now operate in Vietnam, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic, and we’re developing new programs in Japan and the Middle East. But more than 50 percent of CET’s students choose to study in China.
We currently send around 600 students to China, and the majority of them are American. This number is still growing.
It is estimated that about 60 percent of our students stay in China after they graduate. It is wonderful to see them build lives in China, find professional success, and contribute to China’s development.
Many students arrive in our programs with simplistic ideas about what China is like, and as time goes on and as they learn both inside and outside the classroom, their old views are challenged.
Some are critical of what they see, but by the end of their semester or academic year in China, they develop a more nuanced view. They come to understand how complicated China is and how much China has achieved in the last 30 years.
Quite often, they also develop a clearer picture of the US, and they arrive home more critical of American media, our foreign policy, and our economic system.
This is the true benefit of education abroad. Because students experience firsthand life in a very different country, they begin to think critically about the US and its role in the world. They are then in a much better position to solve problems and to create positive change.
GT: How does CET promote China overseas?
Lenhart: While CET makes an effort to distinguish its China programs from the competitors’ programs, we really don’t have to do much to promote China as a destination. Students know from the news, classes and friends that China is a fascinating place of contradictions and change. This is very exciting for me.
When I was a student in the mid- 1980s, it was difficult to find China in the US media or even as a subject in my college classes. Now there is something about China on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every day.
It is not CET’s job to represent China as traditional or modern. Instead, we try to expose students to as much as we can about China, and we try to give them the tools they need to make their own connections and to learn from their Chinese teachers and peers.
We have programs that offer students courses taught in English about China. These courses focus on a variety of topics, including Chinese history, China’s economy, and Chinese society.
Some of our faculty members are Chinese, and some are from other parts of the world, so they offer a variety of perspectives. No matter what their own views are, they try to present information about China objectively so that students can draw their own conclusions.
I personally find it fascinating to see how “traditional China” is presented to foreigners, just as I’m interested in how Americans represent the US to outsiders.
I’ve watched Peking Opera performances dozens of times, but the audience for these performances is nearly entirely foreign.
If foreigners did not visit China, would Peking Opera become a thing of the past?
Similarly, ethnic minorities in Yunnan Province have made a concerted effort to preserve and present their traditional culture to tourists from both abroad and China’s urban areas. If tourism did not exist, would these traditions survive?
I think it’s interesting to consider how everyday people represent their own culture. I hope our students think critically about these questions, and that they discuss them with their Chinese friends.
GT: According to the students’ feedback, have their China experiences changed their original perspectives and how?
Lenhart: Students often write to me that China “changed their lives.” They don’t always elaborate, but I think the changes I’ve described above are at the heart of what changes. They come home with a deeper understanding of China and the US.
In addition, many experience tremendous personal growth – they develop new levels of independence and confidence, and they start to think more broadly about “how to learn.”
Happily, most of our students also return home with lasting friendships with Chinese students. They all make an effort to maintain and renew these friendships when they stay in China after they graduate.
China also changed my life. Of course it was a completely different place when I first studied here in 1987. But my experience was not unlike what our students experience today. I made incredible friendships with Chinese students, I traveled more in China than I had ever in the US, and I had the privilege of meeting and learning from Chinese people from all walks of life.
I knew when I finally left China in 1992 that I would commit myself to promoting US-China educational exchange, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make a career out of this commitment.
GT: What suggestions do you have for those who deeply want to know about China, but don’t have a way to get here?
Lenhart: I think that most Americans can find ways to get to China, even if they face difficult economic constraints. There are more and more scholarships and loans available to students who wish to study overseas.
Since I believe that there really is nothing quite like studying in China, even for a very short time, my advice to those who face these barriers is to find ways around them.”
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