Student Ambassadors Reinforce Ties with China

MADISON – The University of Wisconsin-Madison has strengthened its relationship with China during the past year, beginning with Chancellor Biddy Martin’s spring trip and continuing as the campus welcomed elite Chinese athletes for the fall semester.  Now a group of students and staff members have returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip – one that they hope will continue to inspire their fellow students.

Sixteen students and seven staff members arrived in China on Aug. 18, spending 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing before returning on Aug. 29. In addition to attending Shanghai’s World Expo, they met with United States Ambassador Jose Villarreal, networked with UW-Madison alumni and viewed ancient and modern sites across the country. Their mission: to share their experience with others.

The group comes from the Center for Academic Excellence, a division of the College of Letters and Science that includes the Academic Advancement Program and Pathways to Excellence Student Academic Services. Spearheaded by Christine Poleski, assistant director of AAP, the students have spent months studying aspects of Chinese language, culture and international relations.

Poleski began developing the trip with inspiration from the chancellor’s trip to China. Upon her return in April, the chancellor stated that “[t]he future of U.S.-China relations depends on the relationships that young people build with one another and the quality of their collaborative efforts to solve the genuinely daunting problems of economic and environmental sustainability and peace.”

Most of the students come from backgrounds typically underrepresented in higher education: minority ethnic groups, lower income families and first-generation college students.

The international experience didn’t end when the students returned. Chosen for their leadership skills, nearly half of the students serve as peer mentors, while others lead student organizations. They plan to use these connections to share their experiences with as many peers as possible. Studies of Chinese culture, history and economy will continue in a course called “Global Citizenship and US-China Relations.” In addition, participants have also forged a bond with the International Student Services, with plans to mentor Chinese students at UW-Madison beginning next spring.

The students have already begun reflecting on their journey. One key aspect of their trip has involved meeting UW-Madison alumni living and working in China. The group met at the Shanghai home of Tom Gwyn, a member of UW-Madison’s 1963 basketball team.

“I’d had the intention of teaching Chinese, but now I’ve opened my mind to endless things I could do with the language,” says student Alicia Montague-Keels, already majoring in Chinese education. “I’m considering becoming an English teacher somewhere in China, but after seeing all that the alumni do, my options extend so much further.”

On this trip, Lauren Hoeft is an ambassador for two nations. As last year’s Miss Oneida, she shared her Native American culture with others in Wisconsin. Now, she turns to the rest of the world.

“Families in China are very respectful of their elders, and the children take care of their parents. We do that too,” says Hoeft. “I also could connect with how proud the Chinese are of their history and of their culture. It’s been an eye-opening experience, but I was pleasantly surprised at the similarities.”

Johnathan Martinez connected with his foreign experience in a more personal way.

“I have been able to get a glimpse of the life my parents lived as immigrants,” says Martinez. “I came to a new country not knowing the language and felt the difficulty of trying to get around and communicate with people. It definitely humbled me.”

Cristina Springfield, a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Studies who helped coordinate the program,  noted that the trip would not have been possible without grant funds and money from other departments. Passport and visa fees alone cost more than $300 – not the kind of money most students have lying around. But she says that the global perspective they can now share will be worth it, and the group may return.

“It’ll be great if we can make this trip annually for the next few years,” she says. “We hope people see the value in helping our students become global citizens.


-Susannah Brooks, 608-262-3846,