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A University's China Journey

There is a very popular television show in the United States called The Deadliest Catch, a series on the dangerous life of Bering Sea crabbers. These crabbers risk their lives on a daily basis to catch crabs. While I am not ready to testify to these individuals’ foolhardiness or courage, I always watch in awe the Bering Sea. This is a body of water that can be without mercy without warning. It is nature’s fury and majesty at her best. She is truly the star of the show.

Imagine my awe as I flew over this magnificent yet deadly water on my way to China for the first time. As our plane continued its journey, I realized that we were over Siberia, a landmass as equally deadly as the Bering Sea. Were these turbulent pieces of geography a foreboding of my visit? Having grown-up in the post-Korean War period, my generation was with Cold War tensions between the East and the West. What was I to meet?

Before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you why I went to China in the first place. As Benedictine University was marking the end of the 20th century and positioning itself for the 21st century, we knew that “internationalization” would be a major driver for higher education in the new century. While the University has grown significantly in the last fifteen years, approaching eleven-thousand students, the world is just too big a place for an institution like Benedictine to be all things to all people in all places.

What we needed to do was to make a decision. What part of the world should we place our emphasis so that the institution could realize its need to go international and to be a big international player at the same time? The University had far too few resources to be good in every country. For an institution to truly provide an international experience to its students, it must be able to immerse them in all aspects of that country—language, culture, history, and relationships.

Significant study abroad programs must be developed; faculty exchanges and student exchanges must be put in place. To make the entire world, at the level just described, available to Benedictine students was out of the question. We had to choose a single country in which to invest our resources and to develop relationships.

Approximately sixteen years ago, we used the Benedictine University “crystal ball” and tried to peer into the future. We asked what country will be a driving force for the 21st century? What country should we devote our time and our attention that will make the most significant impact on our students? The answer was simple: China. In our minds, if the world is to have a peaceful and productive next millennium, China and the United States must become better friends and better partners.

But how does an institution like Benedictine become vested in a country seventy three hundred miles away? There are no guidebooks, no courses available to handle such a question. Luckily, we had talented members of our community who began to visit and develop relationships with Chinese universities throughout the country. For almost a decade, these individuals paved the way and set the foundation for budding partnerships. Eventually, to cement the relationships, it was important that I, as president, begin the journey to China.

Getting back to where I began, on an airplane to China, I must say that I was filled with some trepidation. I was traveling to a country I knew not, to a language I could not speak, to customs I might not understand, to a people who may not like me. Surely, I should not be nervous. After all, I was a “person” of the world—I had traveled to Britain, Canada, and Mexico—wasn’t I a “world traveler”? Not really! What was about to unfold for me as we landed in Beijing was one of those transformational times in life when you know from that moment on you will never be the same.

From the moment I stepped off the airplane, all my preconceived notions and fears of what I might encounter and what I had thought of China were melted away by the warm mist of Chinese hospitality. The Chinese are a caring and loving people. Of course, there are the same kind of intransigent personalities as are found in every culture. Unfortunately, we are sometimes quick to judge the many by the few.

As I traveled throughout China, the explosive economic growth was evident everywhere. Cities are rising where there once were rice fields. Super highways are quickly replacing the byways of the past. But beyond the economic and infrastructure improvements, the spirit of the Chinese people is magic. There is a general sense that they can do whatever they want to do. The limitations associated with individuals are overcome in a people. The 2008 Olympics were a testament to the “can-do” attitude. The Olympics was viewed as China emerging as a leader for the 21st century. Prior to the start of the Games, an algae problem developed in the Olympic waterways. Ordinary Chinese citizens went to see if they could assist in the cleanup. They did this because of dedication to country: if the Games were to be the success they so sorely wanted, every person must do her part. China, through its people, raised the bar for all future Olympic Games.

During my tenure as Benedictine’s president, (1995-2016), the University developed seven partnerships with Chinese universities in which were offered masters’ degree programs. As of today, there are almost two thousand Benedictine graduates in China as a result of these partnerships. In addition, a growing tide of Chinese students attended Benedictine and a growing tide of Benedictine students traveled to China.

Through the University’s decision to focus primarily on China in its internationalization, the goal was that one day Benedictine students will graduate with a special expertise as compared to other graduates of other institutions. Obviously, Benedictine students will be wonderfully prepared in traditional areas like the sciences, education, and the arts, but they will have a very distinct advantage. They will have had the added benefit of having a special opportunity to garner the University/China relationship into their own unique expertise. Imagine two recent American business graduates applying for a job in the U.S.. Both have the traditional preparation that studies in business provide; both have similar grades and work experience. The Benedictine graduate, however, has something extra: significant exposure to China. As the world gets smaller, and China continues to emerge as a major international player, Benedictine students’ China experience will give them an added advantage in the search for jobs.

Since my first trip to China, I have had the opportunity to visit many times. Today, I have an extended “family” throughout China. Whenever I am there, I try to meet with the families who have sent their children to study at Benedictine (in the US). In these encounters, I quickly learned that there is a universal language—the language of parents—that all parents understand. In our many conversations, I discover over and over again that all people want the same thing—security for family, a decent place to live, and a job to provide for one’s family.

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