Joann Huynh had no intention of studying abroad when she came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“I had never been far from home or my parents, let alone out of the country,” says Huynh, of Chicago.
Yet, she found the new UW Global Gateway Program too enticing to pass up – a fully funded opportunity to study in China, the country her parents had left in the 1980s. So she applied to become one of 15 UW–Madison undergraduates to embark on a four-week, faculty-led experience in Shanghai this summer.
“When I was accepted to the program, my parents initially said ‘no’ to me going,” Huynh says. “I was expecting it, since from what they remember about China, it was unsanitary and dangerous. … It took a lot of convincing, but I was dead set on taking advantage of this opportunity.”
After spending a month in China, she reports, “I learned what it means to be a global citizen with an appreciation for different cultures, especially if you are coming into a new experience with preconceived notions.”
International Academic Programs (IAP), the study abroad unit of the Division of International Studies, developed the UW Global Gateway Program to engage undergraduates who might be curious about studying abroad, yet reluctant about plunging into an overseas academic experience.
“Every student needs to develop the skills, attitudes, and knowledge to succeed in today’s increasingly diverse, interconnected world,” says Guido Podesta, vice provost and dean of the Division of International Studies, which provided funding for the program. “Creating this unique program is the latest in our ongoing efforts to make global issues and experiences a key part of the undergraduate experience at UW–Madison.”
According to Podesta, the Global Gateway Program will be expanded to other countries in the future.
Joe Dennis, professor in the Department of History, led the first group – Huynh and 14 other UW–Madison students – through an exploration in and around China’s largest city. The program included classes in Chinese history and international relations, taught by Dennis and Dr. Zhang Tiejun, as well as site visits and cultural experiences.
The program was based at the campus of East China Normal University, in cooperation with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).
“Although language was more difficult than many expected, cultural differences turned out to be less challenging,” Dennis says. “Students were struck by the numerous similarities between Chinese and American daily life, values, and goals.”
He adds, “I noticed rapidly-increasing confidence in the students as the program progressed. They all realized that despite a significant language barrier, they could, in fact, function on their own in China. Students found restaurants, entertainment venues, shopping, and more on their own. They became highly adept at using the subway and far more appreciative of the value of public transportation.”
From diverse backgrounds, a cohort bonds
The group consisted of nine females and six males — all in their first or second year at UW-Madison. Their majors included political science, economics, international studies, journalism, Asian studies, microbiology, biochemistry, history, legal studies, international business, Asian-American studies, biology, civil engineering, and undeclared. (Several students listed more than one major.)
Although many of the participants had traveled abroad before, the Global Gateway Program offered all of the students the added opportunity to infuse academic learning into their international experiences. The program is designed to be particularly supportive for those who have never traveled before.
In their follow-up reports, several students cited bonding with their Badger peers as an important aspect of the experience.
“Although none of us know each other prior to the trip, the unusual circumstances made it seem like we had known each other for years by the end of the first week,” says Alex Villarreal, of Chicago.
“One of the things I enjoyed the most about my interactions with my fellow students were the conversations,” says Villarreal. “As opposed to talking about weekend plans or other mundane topics as we would back home in Madison, our conversations always revolved around the ‘here and now.’”
Connecting beyond the American bubble
The students also reached out beyond their Badger bubble, and even beyond the circle of Chinese students and teachers who participated in the program.
“Some of the most memorable moments were visits with Chinese students and families,” Dennis says. “A CIEE staff member took us all to his house in the suburbs, local host families invited small groups of students to their homes, and UW students met with their assigned ‘Chinese buddies.’”
He also notes, “Some students were surprised at how many Chinese people on the street would approach them and ask to have their pictures taken together.”
“I was lucky enough to meet quite a few people during my stay in Shanghai,” says Evan Beyer, of Saint Paul, MN. “To listen to those people tell me about their lives in a place all the way across the world, people whom I would have never met if it was not for the program, was very moving.”
“The time I spent interacting with the local people turned out to be the most valuable aspect of my study abroad experience,” says Erica Cappon, of Milwaukee.
Several students participated in the “English Corner,” a gathering where Chinese students and others came to practice English.
“Around 20 Chinese students, teachers, and random people from the neighborhood gathered with several of us native English speakers to practice their English and talk to us,” explains Ryan Rebernick, of Caledonia, WI. “Going from group to group, I got to know a wide range of people – from a mom with her extremely well-versed 8-year-old, to a young man in his mid-20s who had studied engineering.”
“I had a conversation with a student who seemed obsessed with learning English, and it showed,” says Andrew Rexrode, of Beaver Dam, WI. “He was more proficient than his peers and may have even corrected my grammar.”
Story Sandy, of Shorewood, WI, values his interactions with Chinese students, teachers, and community members that came with the program, but says, “It was a series of random meetings with strangers on campus and in downtown Shanghai that had the most profound impact on me.”
Exploring differences, discovering similarities
Several students talk about recognizing commonalities, while appreciating differences.
“We may enjoy different things and have unique ways of doing something, but in the overall picture, everyone desires similar things in life,” says Emma Fero, of Whitewater, WI. “I believe this is stronger than any differences that exist between the two cultures.”
“Our differences allowed us to learn from each other, while our similarities helped us erase previously held misconceptions or stereotypes,” says Mackenzie Carroll, of Geneva, IL. “Before I had seen China as a faceless mass of people; now I see the faces of the friends and acquaintances I made.”
“Shanghai impacted my life in ways I didn’t imagine possible,” says Dorian Gonzalez, of Los Angeles. “The people, the culture, the day-to-day life in the city is so much more different from what we are used to in the United States, yet in a small but profound way, you can’t help but feel connected to everyone somehow.”
New perspectives on their own identity
For a few students, the experience involved exploring their own heritage and identity.
“When people asked me what ethnicity I was, I would instinctively answer ‘Chinese and Vietnamese,’ yet have nothing to say about my own culture, since I was raised in a predominantly ‘Americanized’ household,” says Joann Huynh.
Huynh explains, “The greatest challenge that I faced while on the program was having to differentiate between what my parents still thought to be true about China and what I actually observed and learned while studying abroad.”
“China is my family’s motherland,” says Tammy Tian, of Greendale, WI. “To ask me the key differences between China and the U.S. is strange. I spent my childhood fumbling through the two, trying to make sense of the duality that exists in my life.”
In Shanghai, Tian found that her impressions to be outdated. “Between China and the U.S., there are a lot more similarities than differences. … We want the same things.”
“I know from past travel experiences that the best way to learn about a culture and the language is through interacting and conversing with the locals,” says Mai Vang, of Eau Claire, WI.
But Vang found that initiating conversations with people in Shanghai to be daunting, “because I am Asian and therefore seen as a local by the actual locals themselves. Many of them mistakenly believe that I am Chinese because I look Chinese and therefore think that I speak fluent Chinese.”
As the program progressed, Vang says, “I became confident and courageous in incorporating my newly learned Chinese phrases in daily conversations with the locals, whether with the man running my favorite noodle restaurant across the street from the campus or the lady taking my measurements for my tailored suit.”
Short stay, lasting impact
Although short in duration, the intensive Global Gateway experience will have a lasting impact, according to the students.
“One month cannot completely change a person, but I do believe that my way of thinking has been challenged and changed for the better because of this experience,” says Mackenzie Carroll.
Dorian Gonzalez returned from China “inspired to continue my travels abroad to different places around the world and widen my horizons and perspectives on global issues. … Shanghai helped me to realize all the incredible stories and journeys that are waiting to be had abroad.”
“Spending a month in Shanghai has taught me more about the world and myself than any lecture ever could have,” says Ryan Rebernick. “Interacting with the people and embracing the lifestyle has destroyed much of the cultural self-centeredness I unknowingly began the trip with.”
Andrew Rexrode, who also has spent time in Spain and Costa Rica, says, “I cannot wait for my next experience abroad – uncovering similarities across cultures; creating goals that, once conquered, shape my career; and encountering moments that have an impact on my life.”
“This new-found knowledge about Chinese culture inspires me to pursue a degree that will allow me to work in an international setting so that I can continue to interact with people of different cultures and expand my worldview,” says Erica Cappon.
“The time I spent in China helped me realize more about myself than I had ever anticipated,” says Emma Fero. “The water situation in China is what leads me to decide on my career choice: I want to be able to aid in the development of improved water systems in China and other countries around the world of similar standards.”
Self-described traveler Ashley Krause, of Lake Geneva, WI, notes: “Traveling is more than a journey or a destination … It is about learning and growing as an individual. Traveling gives perspective, opens minds, and—above all else—demonstrates that this world is much grander than the confines of the small, Midwestern towns that many of my peers and I grew up in.”
The program also had a positive impact on the professor. “For me, being able to walk through historic sites and explain Chinese history on site was memorable,” says Dennis, who relished seeing the students respond to their new experiences and surroundings.
“With this first group, we can see that Global Gateway is having a significant impact on students’ understanding of themselves and Wisconsin’s place in the world,” says Dan Gold, IAP director. “The energy, enthusiasm and commitment that they showed while abroad will surely continue to enrich their lives, both academically and personally. I look forward to seeing how these students build on this experience while at UW–Madison and beyond.”
— by Kerry G. Hill
To read more from the students, check out the Global Gateway blog.