University partnership gives students from China experience in American culture – the good and bad
Imagine stepping off a plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and being greeted with signs that say, “You’re Almost Home.” You get into a van with a complete stranger who drives 40 minutes to what seems like the middle of nowhere. You are checked into your room by a resident assistant, then you realize it: home is thousands of miles away.
This is exactly the experience sophomores from Zhejiang International Studies University had as they arrived at UW-River Falls for the first time last August. The 23 students from Zhejiang International Studies University are at UWRF to gain experience in American educational settings.
These students are here as a part of the partnership that UWRF and Zhejiang International Studies University have maintained for 30 years. The program allows ZISU students to complete their junior year at UWRF and gain valuable elementary education experience. Though the program has many advantages, participants also experience challenges of language barriers and difficulties adjusting to American cultures.
The current program, which started in 2013, has ZISU students attend UWRF for their sophomore year, said Katrina Larsen, executive director for International Education. Students take eight credits of ESL (English as a second language) courses and eight credits of teacher education courses tailored to meet their needs. One course requires students to spend six hours every Wednesday at one of the River Falls or Hudson elementary schools.
“As you can imagine, students love getting the opportunity to see how the United States public education system works and interacting with the elementary school teachers and students,” Larsen said.
There have been 77 participants in the elementary education program, 23 of which are currently studying at UW-River Falls. A visiting scholar, Professor Weiwei Chen, is also on campus.
While the program appears to have a lot of positives, participants also experience some challenges. Participants are given host families, including interim provost Faye Perkins’ family, to help with some of these challenges. Perkins’ family has hosted over 30 students, including at least seven students and professors from China.
“We try to provide a welcoming atmosphere and help introduce them to our culture,” Perkins said. “When our sons were growing up, our international students felt like they had little brothers and were a part of our family. Inviting them over for holidays, birthdays, special occasions or just to hang out helped them when they were homesick.”
In addition to homesickness, another challenge international students experience is language.
“Even though they may have had years of English training in their schools, it is very different when you are around native speakers who generally speak at lot faster than they are used to,” Perkins said. “Most international students have to study very hard, and do a lot of reading, in order to understand their course material.”
Despite these challenges, ZISU students experience a lot of positives while studying at UWRF. This experience also benefits UW-River Falls.
“Over the years, many UWRF and ZISU students have had education abroad experiences on each other’s campus, and faculty and staff have had opportunities to visit and learn about a different place and culture,” said chancellor Dean Van Galen. “These experiences are often life-changing and also help to further internationalize the UW-River Falls campus.”