A whole new world: six visiting scholars from China discover UW-Platteville

August 16, 2018
visiting scholars
visiting scholars at dinner

When Dr. Xiaole Han arrived, jetlagged from over 24 hours of air travel, in a small Wisconsin college town, she must have wondered if she made the right decision. In fact, Han acknowledged, “When I first arrived at UW-Platteville, I thought six months was so long.” But six months of intensive cultural immersion, language learning, and educational exchange brought a reward. “When I left,” Han said, “I expected I could have another six months.”

Han was part of a pioneering cultural exchange between UW-Platteville and the South Central University for Nationalities (SCUN), a 32,000-student university dedicated particularly to the education of ethnic minorities, in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, China. Six scholars from SCUN visited UW-Platteville for six months, with an end goal of developing a bilingual English-Chinese chemistry program at SCUN.

During their time in Wisconsin, the scholars worked on their language skills, observed UW-Platteville classes, and participated in a dizzying array of cultural activities, all designed to help them reach a deep and nuanced understanding of how American culture informs STEM education. “We went to the Capitol and attended a professional conference in Madison, visited the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, even went to a cranberry farm,” said Dr. Farzana Marni, lecturer in the UW-Platteville Department of Chemistry and coordinator of the project. But the most important portion of the visit was, by far, spent alongside UW-Platteville students. “We wanted to make sure [the scholars] were involved with the everyday function of the university,” said Marni. To that end, Marni created daily schedules that included university events like Pioneer Talks, Tech Mashup, the Assessment Showcase, even high school visits. Additionally, the visitors’ schedules made time for eight weekly hours of intensive English language learning. “That’s where you could really see the progress,” says Dr. Qiong (June) Li, chair of the chemistry department. “At the beginning, it was a bit difficult to have a conversation, but by the end it was really different.”

The language of chemistry, however, is universal: the scholars diligently attended every class and lab, noting the similarities—but more often, the vast differences—between Chinese and U.S. academic culture. “They noted that our students ask more questions; there are more interactions between professors and students,” said Li. “Another feature of our classrooms [which China does not have] is active learning, which they say is very different to them. Some of our groups don’t even have lectures; they form groups and work on solving problems together. The professor is there if they encounter trouble, to help and explain. That concept was very new to [the visitors]. Also, they felt like our textbook was better in terms of being easy to read, and the problems having better relation to the text.”

Some cultural differences were less significant, but still had the power to shock: “Their students were never allowed to drink or eat anything in class, but our students sometimes bring food and coffee into class,” said Li. “For them that was interesting.”

As the scholars’ comfort increased, so did their contributions to the Pioneer community. “One of them was a very accomplished professional ballroom dancer in China, so she taught that here,” said Marni. “Another was a food chemist, so we had the International Office introduce him to the Driftless Market, where he held a workshop for the community demonstrating Chinese cooking principles.” With these simple activities—dancing and breaking bread—the scholars found common ground with their U.S. counterparts. Visiting scholar Lianqing Chen put it succinctly and poetically: “I wish to become a bridge to increase the friendship between China and USA people.”

As the warm memories shared by both parties attest, Chen was successful in her mission. The initial shock of travel from a bustling Chinese metropolis to a Wisconsin university town hemmed in by rolling dairy farms may have been extreme, but the payoff in shared cultural understanding made the strain worthwhile. “It will be an unforgettable memory in my whole life,” said Jiawen Lei. “I think I’ve come to a right place.”

Written by Jane Halpern, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science


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