Project Pengyou aims to build Chinese-American bridges among UW students

After spending four weeks in China as a Global Gateway Scholar last summer, Tammy Tian returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, determined to bring some of her experiences back to campus.

Tian, a junior studying journalism and East Asian Studies, wanted to start a student organization that bridged the social gap between Chinese and American students, but she recognized that this required more resources and support than were available on campus.

Tian, a Chinese-American from Milwaukee, became interested in the culture she experienced in China. Although her parents are from China, Tian gained a valuable new perspective during her time as a Global Gateway Scholar that she wished to show fellow UW-Madison students.

So she turned to Project Pengyou. A national organization with more than 300 chapters, Project Pengyou aspires to bring Chinese and domestic students together for conversation and intellectual engagement.

Tian and Hong-En Chen, a Taiwanese-American student from Madison, teamed up to attend a leadership fellow training summit at Harvard University last fall with the national Project Pengyou organization. The four-day summit connected students from across the country who, like Tian and Chen, were eager to bring Project Pengyou to their campuses.

UW's Project Pengyou celebrates the Chinese New Year.
Project Pengyou celebrates the Chinese New Year.

“There were 40 students there, all of them were study abroad alumni from different institutions in the U.S.,” Tian says. “It was a really inspiring community. The mentors there were recruited as people who had experience in leadership and community training. You would learn a theory or technique for an hour and then practice it for a couple hours after that.”

After returning from the leadership gathering, Tian and Chen established the UW-Madison chapter of Project Pengyou and serve as co-chairs.

Tian believes that Project Pengyou will attract students in a different way than other student organizations.

“I am empowering people to believe in themselves and give them the confidence to do things that they’ve always wanted to do but didn’t know how to approach. I’m focusing on that aspect of [my leadership],” Tian says.

Although chapter members have taken on specific roles, they prefer to focus on working together.

“Our idea is teamwork, so even though we’re labeled, we want to work together on everything,” says Chi Huynh, a junior serving in the role of program developer for the chapter.

Huynh, a Vietnamese-American majoring in international studies and education, shares the hope with her peers that Project Pengyou will become more diverse. They recognize that one of the group’s biggest challenges is be in attracting students of varied cultural backgrounds to participate. So far, they have had some success.

“One of the big goals is to have intercultural dialogue and that, naturally, people would be friends with each other,” Huynh says.

The fledgling chapter already has organized small-group sessions, developed a one-credit seminar for the spring semester, and joined the national organization’s celebration of “National Pengyou Day” by hosting a campus event last November 20, during International Education Week.

“We wanted to give people a taste of what conversations we’d like to have at our future events,” Tian says.

This event offered a mix of American and Chinese culture, along with cuisine from both cultures. The pizza and dumplings ran out quicker than expected due to a turnout that was larger than Tian has projected.

During the event, a panel of Chinese and domestic students spoke about their experiences at UW and when they studied or lived in China.

UWProjectPengyou_PosterFor the spring semester, the group’s biggest project is the seminar, which aims to explore issues, differences, and similarities between China and the United States, according to Tian.

“The seminar was my biggest goal,” Huynh says. “Hopefully it will bring students in, and help them know about Pengyou.”

The chapter also hosted a screening experience with Channel C, a film project from several UW alumni, and a potluck celebration for the Chinese New Year, featuring board games and relaxing conversations.

“Many of the people who attended made new friends and shared deep conversations about contemporary culture in both the U.S. and China,” Tian says.

This semester, the chapter also is launching its “Lunch with Pengyou” the second Wednesday of every month. The next Lunch with Pengyou program, on “Film, Pop Culture, and Politics in 1970s China,” will be held March 11 at noon, with location to be announced.

Tian and Huynh also see Project Pengyou’s social media activities as important to spreading the word about the group across such a large campus.

“Hopefully the people who attend out events will visit our page on Facebook. We’re also trying to make a website,” Tian says.

She particularly wants to reach students enrolled in classes that relate to China.

“I just think that it’s hard to connect to American domestic students and explain what’s in it for them,” Huynh says.

Tian sees Project Pengyou as a student organization different from those that center on social or academic aspects.

“We want to be different in that we want to make differences on campus,” she says. “We want to give students the tools so they can make those changes too.”

UW-Madison Project Pengyou meets every Thursdays at 7 p.m. in the Red Gym. For more information, visit the Project Pengyou Madison Facebook page or go to the UW-Madison Project Pengyou Chapter website.

– by Jennifer Anderson