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June 20, 2024

China partnership offers research opportunities

November 30, 2006

Imagine waking up to the realization that you are at an altitude of about 2 miles above sea level. Just outside your bedroom window, the Himalaya Mountains can be seen in their full glory.

Today you’ll head to Gongbing, a Tibetan village within walking distance, to learn more about its traditional art forms. Or perhaps the city of Shangri-La is your destination, where you’ll ferment a uniquely Tibetan micro-beer.

But before you leave, don’t forget to drink some piping hot yak butter tea.

Next summer, UW-River Falls students will get the chance to experience all this and much more.

Through a partnership between UWRF and the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS), students have the opportunity to work directly with alumnus Wong How Man and his staff in one of the most culturally and environmentally diverse regions in the world — China’s Yunnan Province.

Provost Charles Hurt has approved crucial funding for at least one faculty member to accompany a group of students to China on what would be the inaugural trip of the UWRF/CERS partnership.

Hurt said he agreed to provide the funding because this prospect ties into the University’s overall mission.

“One of the strategic directions in which UWRF is moving is globalization of the institution,” he said.

Hurt also praised Wong and his connection to the University.

“We have a wonderful partner and alum in Wong How Man,” he said. “We need to continue this relationship, and one way to do so is by making travel to China possible.”

Situated in the southwestern corner of the nation, Yunnan is home to three climactic zones, as well as to China’s highest number of ethnic minorities.

The province, which is largely Tibetan, is particularly sensitive to cultural onslaught due to growing numbers of vacationers visiting the region.

“This whole area’s being sort of pressured by ongoing tourism and development,” said Director of International Education Programs Brent Greene.

Greene said Wong’s goal is to aid the Tibetans in creating “cottage industries” that will enable them to remain in charge of their own destinies.

“The premise of this whole thing ... is How Man wants to help the Tibetans try and maintain some semblance of their current lifestyle,” Greene said. “Rather than have those people have to work for the hotel chains or the fast food restaurants ... let them develop some kind of business, something that lets them be in control of their lives and decide how they generate revenue.”

Students will help Wong and his staff to achieve the CERS mission: conserving and preserving the natural environment and cultural traditions of a China that is quickly becoming westernized.

Their home base will be the CERS Zhongdian Center, a Tibetan-style timber building located about 6 miles outside the growing Chinese tourist mecca of Shangri-La.

According to the CERS Web site, “the peaceful environment” and “idyllic setting” of the center’s location make it the consummate place to conduct research on every facet of remote China.

The center has dormitory space,  housing up to 20 people and modern bathroom facilities. An activity room provides students with the comforts of home.

“[Students] going on these internships would be staying in an extremely modern place [that is] spotlessly clean [and] fantastically beautiful,” said Tracy O’Connell, assistant professor of marketing communications.

O’Connell has first-hand knowledge of the facility.

She, along with Greene and four other UWRF faculty members, stayed there for a week in August 2005 as Wong’s guests.

The purpose of the trip was to develop the UWRF/CERS partnership.

Besides O’Connell and Greene, the delegation included Kelly Cain, professor of environmental science and management; Pat Hanson, speech communication and theatre arts lecturer; Lynn Jermal, professor of art; and Brad Mogen, professor of biology.

The group was assembled from a pool of candidates who submitted potential CERS project proposals.

During their stay, they visited CERS project sites in the surrounding area.

Among the locations were a Tibetan nunnery in the process of being completely renovated, and a non-commercial kennel founded to preserve and protect the vanishing Tibetan mastiff dog breed.

O’Connell has fond memories of the trip and of the residents she encountered.

“It was so incredible,” O’Connell said. “The people were just lovely.”

Jermal was struck not only by the region’s stunning beauty, but by the gradual shift toward modernization occurring there.

She recalled seeing traditional wood-carved sheds with satellite dishes atop them.

“The clash between technology and culture is huge,” she said.

Although it is unknown who the faculty leader for next summer’s trip will be, there is a good chance of Jermal taking the reins.

The art professor is in the midst of organizing a group of students to return to the Yunnan Province to pursue her proposal, which is tentatively titled “Mirroring Tibetan Treasures.”

Students will help the younger villagers in Gongbing, which is near the Zhongdian Center, preserve their time-honored art forms through digital means.

According to the proposal, “UW-River Falls in collaboration with CERS can play an important role in initiating a process of recognizing, documenting, preserving and continuing the rich artistic heritage of the village by introducing the role new media can have in gathering, conserving and disseminating information.”

The young Tibetans will be taught how to use electronic recording equipment, which they will use to document the various artistic traditions of their village.

The hope is to engage the younger villagers in the art forms, which would encourage them to keep the customs alive.

“Maybe they would get interested enough to have workshops and learn from [the artists] how to do things and think about marketing their things,” Jermal said.

Art education major Sara Lessard is part of Jermal’s student group.

“It interested me because I just really want to study abroad,” Lessard said.  “I’ve always wanted to go to a different culture and experience a culture shock.”

Fellow art education major Andy Moore is also a part of the coterie.

“What stuck out to me was that we’ll actually be working with the villagers in China ... to help them out and not going on vacation,” Moore said.

Jermal said she is seeking students from all disciplines to take part, not just those from her department.

“They don’t have to be from art to work on this project,” she said.

Besides Jermal’s undertaking, other internship opportunities are available.

There are prospects for biology students interested in learning how to ferment beer, or marketing communications students looking to try out their best advertising slogans on the Tibetan public.

Additionally, students have the option of submitting and pursuing their own project proposals, provided they fit Wong’s mission for CERS.

“We want to encourage that,” Greene said. “We don’t want to lock it in to just students who fit within those disciplines [mentioned above].”

Greene said a student informational meeting should happen sometime this month.

“We have this opportunity as an institution ... to be present when this emerging nation on the global stage sort of has to make decisions about how to develop this area,” he said. “We can affect that development. I mean, that’s powerful.”

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