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Year of the Ram

VCU is launching a bold new initiative to strengthen its research and educational connections in China

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“Gong Xi Fa Cai,” a Mandarin expression meant to wish someone well, will be heard often this week as more than 1 billion people celebrate the Chinese New Year. The festive celebration, which takes place this year on Feb. 19, runs on a 12-year cycle with a different animal representing each year. In China, 2015 is the Year of the Sheep, but Virginia Commonwealth University is declaring it the Year of the Ram, to symbolize the university’s new focus on China.

Over the past three decades, China has grown in international significance and influence. According to “China Goes Global: The Partial Power” by David Shambaugh, “by many measures, China is now clearly the world’s second-leading power, after the United States, and its aggregate economy is due to surpass that of the United States sometime around 2025.”

This emergence can be seen across sectors — business, politics, science and of course education. Students from China now make up 31 percent of all international students in the U.S., according to the 2014 Open Doors Report released by the Institute for International Education last November. VCU trails this national trend, with roughly 9 percent of its international student population coming from China.

Following a visit to China by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., last summer, the university is marking the Chinese New Year by launching a bold initiative to double the numbers of Chinese students at VCU and of VCU students in China by the end of the decade.

“The growing strategic importance of China in today’s world makes it incumbent upon us to adequately prepare our students for tomorrow by building and strengthening VCU’s bridges with China,” said McKenna Brown, Ph.D., executive director of the VCU Global Education Office.

As we kick off our celebration of the Year of the Ram in pursuit of this effort, it’s fitting to take a look at VCU’s relationship with China — past, present and future.

Building on successes 

American Studies Program students visit local landmarks such as the Virginia Capitol Building for a first-hand look at American history.
American Studies Program students visit local landmarks such as the Virginia Capitol Building for a first-hand look at American history.

VCU’s commitment to expand its relationship with institutions in China grows out of a limited but longstanding history of successful collaborations over the past decade. One such collaboration has been via the American Studies Program. 

“Eleven years ago, Fudan University was looking for a summer program for their students, and VCU was attempting to increase its profile in Shanghai,” said John Herman, Ph.D., professor of history in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and VCU’s chief liaison to Fudan University. “We created this program to bring Fudan students to Richmond for four weeks during the summer and to recruit students to enroll at VCU.” 

The American Studies Program, developed and implemented by the VCU Global Education Office, now hosts a group of Chinese undergraduates for a five-week period during the summer. Throughout the program, VCU faculty present a variety of lectures on topics such as American history, American foreign policy, homeland security and emergency preparedness, contemporary American society, religion and politics, and media and art in America. In addition to the lectures, students participate in home visits, weekend excursions to local attractions and a day trip to the White House in Washington, D.C. 

VCU’s location has provided a unique opportunity for Chinese students in the program to learn about American history. “Our history faculty does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia in the historical development of the U.S.,” Herman said. “Because history is a highly political discipline in China, the Chinese students are always amazed that we can have in the center of our city an avenue devoted to those who rebelled against the union. This simply could not occur in China.” 

Because history is a highly political discipline in China, the Chinese students are always amazed that we can have in the center of our city an avenue devoted to those who rebelled against the union. This simply could not occur in China.

A snapshot of today

While the American Studies Program has brought students to VCU to experience American history and culture, one of VCU’s newest study abroad programs seeks to do the same for  American students through an environmental lens.

The “Plants of China: Scientific and Cultural Significance,” study abroad experience, led by Wenheng Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, will take a group of undergraduates to China to explore the role that plants play in Chinese culture, including food, medicine, ornament and landscaping. 

The program is a collaborative effort among the VCU Department of Biology, the Education Abroad office, and the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of the most comprehensive research institutions on all aspects of plant sciences in China. 

According to Zhang, the number of American students studying in China is less than 10 percent of the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. “There is huge imbalance in the exchange of knowledge. To minimize the gap, this course provides an opportunity for VCU students to learn about China and increase engagement with the nation beyond the classroom,” she said. “American students with firsthand experience in China will be valuable assets to contribute to the future development of Sino-America relations.” 

Looking ahead

In summer 2014, VCU President Michael Rao and President Tan Xiangyong of Beijing Technology and Business University signed an agreement that will enhance relations between the two institutions.
In summer 2014, VCU President Michael Rao and President Tan Xiangyong of Beijing Technology and Business University signed an agreement that will enhance relations between the two institutions.

Since President Rao’s visit to China last summer, VCU has entered into formal agreements with 10 new Chinese universities, up from three in the previous year. These arrangements set the stage for future collaboration in a wide variety of disciplines, including business, chemistry, communication, dentistry, engineering and medicine.   

“Our agreements with Chinese institutions tend to be more general in focus at the start,” Brown said. “But this is a critical step because they begin a dialogue with our counterparts in China and allow us to quickly take advantage of opportunities for our students and faculty as they arise. 

“There are lots of resources in place for academic units to help make this happen, including our Quest Global Impact Awards, which, this year, have given special consideration to projects involving China,” Brown said.   

So while the details of VCU’s future relationship with China are still to be determined, we do know this: The future is optimistic, intentional — and we predict that it’s going to be a great Year of the Ram. 

 

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Ling-lin Ku, a junior in the School of the Arts, at the Labrang Monastery, at Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China. Ku and her mentor, Ryan Crowley, an assistant professor, traveled 3,000 miles last year along the Silk Road, a network of trails and trading routes that connect East Asia to the Mediterranean Sea.
Ling-lin Ku, a junior in the School of the Arts, at the Labrang Monastery, at Xiahe County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China. Ku and her mentor, Ryan Crowley, an assistant professor, traveled 3,000 miles last year along the Silk Road, a network of trails and trading routes that connect East Asia to the Mediterranean Sea.
Students from Chengdu No. 7 School visited VCU in summer 2012 for a two-week college preparatory program that allowed them to explore American university life. Programs such as these create a pipeline of Chinese students who are interested in further study at VCU.
Students from Chengdu No. 7 School visited VCU in summer 2012 for a two-week college preparatory program that allowed them to explore American university life. Programs such as these create a pipeline of Chinese students who are interested in further study at VCU.