Visiting Assistant Professor Paul Shovlin talks with Zhenjiang International School student Xu Yun during an Intro to English Composition class that the visiting students participated in at the Glenn G. Bartle Library last month.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Harpur College partners with Chinese schoolTweet
Zhenjiang International School teacher Sofia Jiang smiled as she watched the Chinese students interact with their Binghamton High School counterparts.
“This trip to the United States is their first chance to talk with so many English-speaking people,” said Jiang, who teaches English at Zhenjiang International School (ZIS). “It’s a very good experience for them. In China, they can have books and imagine what they could say. But they don’t have real situations like this.”
The visit to Binghamton High was just one highlight of a whirlwind week for 20 Chinese high school sophomores who came to Binghamton on April 16 as part of a new program that links Binghamton University’s Harpur College and Ambow Education’s Zhenjiang International School.
In the partnership, ZIS students will take Binghamton University online English and writing classes and then attend Binghamton University after their high school graduation. The recent visit gave the students an introduction to Binghamton University, its classes, campus life and the community.
“They are coming away with a sense of what Binghamton University feels like, how it operates and what the possibilities of an American university experience are like,” Harpur College Dean Donald Nieman said.
“We’ve brought our students here to understand how the American educational system works,” ZIS Principal Zhou Wei said. “In the future, most of them will choose to come to Binghamton University. We have loved Binghamton University and the city very much.”
Origins of a partnership
The roots of the Ambow/ZIS-Harpur partnership can be traced to Joel Kellman ’63. As co-founder of Granite Global Ventures, Kellman has years of experience working with Chinese business leaders. He has remained active with Binghamton University through giving and as a senior advisor to the Institute for Asia and Asian Diasporas.
During a spring 2011 visit to campus, Kellman met with Nieman and told the dean about Ambow, a large, educational service provider in China. Kellman had known Ambow CEO Jin Huang for seven or eight years and served as an advisor to the company when it went public on the New York Stock Exchange.
“I got to know Ambow very well, admire it and understand what it does,” Kellman said. “But trying to do a transaction between a business corporation and an academic institution is inherently difficult.”
Nieman was intrigued by Kellman’s connection, and the alumnus later traveled to Beijing to meet with Jin and discuss a potential partnership with Binghamton University.
In June 2011, Jin and Ambow Vice President Cherry Pu visited Binghamton University.
“They were very impressed with campus,” Nieman said. “They loved the facilities and the quality of the institution. So we started focusing on what a program with Ambow might look like.”
“I told Nieman, ‘If you go after this, you can’t send your less senior people,’” Kellman said. “You have to send the very senior people to China in order for them to treat you seriously.”
In December 2011, Vice Provost for International Affairs Katharine Krebs – in China for a Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera session – spent a day meeting with Ambow officials. Those discussions set the stage for a formal Binghamton University delegation visit in February.
Nieman, Krebs, Kellman and John Chaffee, director of the Institute for Asia and Asian Diasporas, traveled to Zhenjiang, the home of one of the high schools that Ambow operates, with a memorandum of understanding for the partnership. ZIS students would not only have the opportunity to take online college courses, but would also be able to attend Binghamton University if their English skills and online-class performances were sufficient.
The memorandum was signed on a Sunday. “That’s typical of China,” Kellman said. “Everybody’s ready to work all of the time.”
Kellman, who said at that point he was there for “encouragement,” was excited to be part of a partnership with so many potential benefits.
“It was thrilling,” he said. “I sat there and thought back to being a young child and the possibility of being on something so promising. … It was a perfect fit for my background.”
For Nieman, the trip to Zhenjiang helped lay the groundwork for the students’ visit to Binghamton.
“We got to know the students, see the high school and get a sense of the city,” he said. “When I walked into our welcome banquet (at Binghamton on April 16), I knew everybody there. I had met them. That was a good feeling for me.”
‘A happy, productive time’
The Ambow-Zhenjiang group, which included the 20 students, Principal Zhou, Pu, Jiang and fellow teacher Jianguo Wu, arrived at Binghamton University on April 16 after a brief visit in New York City. The students checked into their rooms on campus in Johnson Hall and attended the welcome banquet. The next morning, wearing their school uniforms, the students received a general orientation about Harpur College from Nieman, Harpur Director of Advising Larry Greenfield and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Jensen.
Some students were able to practice their English right away by serving as translators for their principal, who does not speak English.
“When professors from the United States or Canada visit our school, we always have the students serve as tour guides and be translators for the principal,” Jiang said. “The principal and the teachers let students do this so they can practice their English.”
Following a campus tour, the students met with Harpur College faculty members Chaffee, Robert Ku, Don Boros, Al Vos, Mark Reisinger, Wayne Jones and Susannah Gal to learn about different academic areas.
“It is so important to the University – and the Theatre Department in particular – to have students from different countries studying with us here,” Boros told the students. “The sharing of cultures and the sharing of information is without compare.”
The faculty session also featured some light-hearted moments, such as when Jones, arriving a little late after attending a research event on campus, was visibly surprised to receive a loud ovation from the students when he walked through the door.
Nieman also reminded the students that Boros helped stage an adaptation of “Romeo in Juliet” in the style of the Beijing Opera. The students had seen a photo from the show earlier that morning.
“He played Romeo!” Ku said of Boros, producing laughter from the students and fellow faculty members.
In the evening, the students demonstrated their native language when meeting with members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at the Graduate Student Lounge.
CSSA members Yidan Sun, a junior bioengineering major, and Yue Li, a senior financial engineering major, both said the event was successful.
“Being paired with a CSSA student definitely helps,” Sun said. “It makes for a more one-on-one connection that makes them more comfortable.”
“Binghamton is very different from what they see in China, so being here allows them to experience both, and then they can decide which is more suitable for them,” Li said.
Although they had only been on campus for a little more than 24 hours, the students were already impressed with Binghamton University.
“The facilities are very nice and there are lots of activities to take part in,” Sheoby Xue said. “The people are very friendly.”
“I like the programs here,” John Yan said. “I like all the greens, trees, natures and blue skies. It’s not like China, where you can’t always see blue skies.”
One steadying constant for the students during the week was the presence of Andy Horowitz. An artist-in-residence at the University and co-founder of the Galumpha dance troupe, Horowitz speaks Chinese and has assisted during other visits from Chinese delegations. As project manager/guide/translator for the Chinese group, Horowitz did everything from sewing buttons onto the students’ school uniforms to finding warmer blankets to describing the differences between houses on Binghamton’s Riverside Drive.
“I’m here to make sure they have a very happy, safe, productive time,” he said. “The week was incredible since we are learning from the ground up. … Given the possibilities of failures such as people getting lost, or being unhappy or sick, we had an incredible week. So many of the students told me they hope they can come back here because they’ve had a great time. Above all, our goal was to show them what Binghamton University is all about, what the city is about and have them wanting to come back.”
Wednesday, April 18, saw the students attend classes and Blackboard training, take a tour of the Nature Preserve and get a glimpse of residence-hall life during a Newing reception. The next morning, the students took part in an Intro to English Composition class with Visiting Assistant Professor Paul Shovlin, while Ambow/ZIS and Binghamton University leaders met with Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan at City Hall.
“This is a beautiful city and the citizens are very enthusiastic,” Principal Zhou said. “I appreciate the mayor talking with us. We want to establish sister cities and sister schools. China needs to look more out in the world. We hope more Americans visit China and understand our culture and people.”
On the afternoon of April 19, the students took a bus to Binghamton High School and received an overview of the school from Principal Al Penna, who told them that he had visited China in 2008 and was planning to return to Shanghai in June.
“Binghamton University is a great place that is growing,” said Penna, whose three children attended the University. “You can become anything you want there. You will get a very good education at Binghamton University.”
The students toured the school, stopping to say hello in various classrooms, including Shirley Yan’s Mandarin-Chinese classes.
“This is the first time Chinese students have visited the class,” Yan said. “It’s so exciting. Our students got small gifts from the Chinese students and they were so excited: ‘Mrs. Yan! Look at our gifts!’”
The Chinese students were visibly shy when facing the American students in the Mandarin class. Zhou urged someone to step forward and tell the class about the week – in English. Student Andy Wei took the challenge.
“The first day in the U.S. we were in New York,” he said. “It’s a beautiful city, you know? Then we came to Binghamton University. It’s a beautiful environment and a good place for our English. We had a welcome party and ate a lot of food! Everyone in America has been friendly. Maybe in a few years, we will all be classmates at Binghamton University. But I think we will be friends first.”
The words drew a loud round of applause and the American and Chinese students split off into small groups to discuss their experiences.
For Nieman, it was important for the Chinese students to see the city that is outside the University’s borders and to let parents know they will be sending their children somewhere “safe and inviting.”
“We wanted to give the group a sense of Binghamton as a community,” he said. “Going to the high school gave them a view of peer culture in the community. The mayor made them feel special. It just seemed like something we wanted to do to give them the full dimension of Binghamton.”
A farewell banquet was held later that night and the group left the next day for stops in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Michigan.
“We’ve heard Michigan is very cold. I may need to buy something warm!” said Jiang, seemingly fooled by Binghamton’s unusually warm mid-April.
What happens next
The Ambow/ZIS-Harpur program is not a one-sided travel partnership. This month, Shovlin and junior Christie Hackett will travel to Zhenjiang. Shovlin, who will teach one of the online classes, will interact will ZIS students for a couple of days, while Hackett will serve as an English teaching assistant at the school for six weeks.
Hackett spent the fall of 2011 at Beijing Normal University, taking classes in Chinese speaking, reading, writing and listening. She also taught English to a 10-year-old and tutored a graduate student in translation. She learned about a month ago that she will go to Zhenjiang.
“I just count myself beyond lucky that I’m part of this program,” she said. “It’s a new program with so much potential for new students coming to Binghamton. There should be a steady stream of well-performing and interested Chinese students who are going to come to this university. To be part of the beginning of that, I feel nervous, but also really thrilled to affect change in a small way.”
Nieman said he hopes to send a student to China every summer to help prepare students for life at Binghamton.
“We don’t want to create a program that has limited interaction,” he said. “We want a distance-learning environment that’s rich in interaction between instructor and students. Having the visit is a good thing.”
Zhenjiang students will take online courses next year and by the fall of 2014, 25 could be attending Binghamton University, Nieman said. The long-term goal is to add at least 25 new Zhenjiang students each year – students who would have the necessary language skills needed to “navigate” the University.
The next orientation visit is planned for March 2013, Nieman said.
“In the visit next year, we’ll put more emphasis on creating sessions where the students can do oral presentations to hone their speaking skills,” he said. “That is something ZIS believes would be very useful.”
As for the April visit, Nieman said Ambow/ZIS leaders conducted “debriefings” each night with the students about the trip.
“They asked the students: ‘What would you improve?’ Nobody could say anything,” Nieman said. “(Students) had no suggestions for improvements. They told us this exceeded their expectations. Principal Zhou said students felt comfortable and weren’t homesick. … I think there was enough variety in the week to keep them engaged.”
The “team effort” at Binghamton University also made the week a success, Nieman said, emphasizing his relationship with Krebs and Chaffee and the role that Vice President Brian Rose and Student Affairs played in ensuring housing for the students.
“Everyone on this campus has been extraordinarily helpful,” Nieman said. “What Student Affairs and Residential Life did made this a much richer experience for the students.”
The Ambow/ZIS-Harpur partnership is important because it will create an even more international campus, Nieman said.
“Universities that are able to internationalize their campus and community are going to be places that provide students with a much better education that prepares them for the world that they will enter,” he said. “This is a part of that mission: internationalize the campus, but in a way that is high in academic quality while recruiting students who are right for Binghamton University and feel good about
Binghamton University. And it creates opportunities for our students to explore China, as well.”
Christine McKeown contributed to this story