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Cultural ambassadors

From the U.S. to China, Mizzou students go global

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 11, 2008
Suqin "Jackie" Lin

Suqin "Jackie" Lin's painting "Another World in My Eyes" arose from her observations about American junk food.

When Suqin “Jackie” Lin was earning her undergraduate degree at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in southern China, foreign travel seemed like a foreign idea.

But then a professor from California visiting the school saw Lin’s work and urged her to study abroad — specifically with Lampo Leong, an accomplished artist from her region and chair of the Art Department at the University of Missouri. So six months ago, Lin left her home country for the first time and became a graduate student at Mizzou.

Despite having limited English skills and little travel experience, Lin has turned her stay in Columbia into an opportunity for cultural, personal and linguistic exploration — while honing her drawing and painting skills with Leong and his colleagues Bill Hawk and Mark Langeneckert.

The eye-opening effects of her transition are evident in Lin’s art. Some of her recent work reflects her fascination with American food — “specifically the size,” she explains — depicting supersize junk food filling a room or gargantuan syrupy confections dripping over skyscrapers. Other drawings reveal her newfound passion for Jewish history and the kinship she has found with Jewish American friends here.

“Although I’ve just studied here for a short time, I’ve learned a lot,” Lin says.

She’s not alone. More Mizzou international students come from China than any other country; the university welcomed 356 Chinese students in fall 2007.

China bound

While Chinese students like Lin are looking to Mizzou to expand their horizons, American Mizzou students are taking more interest in China, and the university is working to meet the rising demand. A new Chinese Language and Culture Club formed in the spring, creating an American counterpart to the Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars. To meet Chinese-language education needs, Mizzou has added a second section of elementary Chinese for the 2008-09 school year; it’s full already.

This summer, Mizzou has offered three study-abroad programs in China, as well as connections to 10 partner programs there. Currently, 60 journalism students are working as volunteers for the Olympic News Service and blogging about their experiences in Beijing. Fine-art exchange programs with Chinese universities also are being planned, Leong says.

In May, Jessica Howard, a senior majoring in international business, went to China on a program led by Michael Volz, Mizzou’s coordinator of Chinese language education who has won a Study Abroad Advisory Council award for his summer program. The six-week trip took an unexpected turn when the earthquake struck in the Sichuan province, disrupting arrangements with the host university in Deyang. So Volz took his eight students on extended jaunts around the country, visiting eight different cities and connecting with his network of friends and colleagues.

“We got to meet a lot of people doing different things all over China — from business to religion to teaching. They were ready to talk to us and wanted to help,” Howard says. “Michael knew the safe places to go that were off the beaten path. We were forced to use the language. We definitely had a more ‘real’ experience.”

Half the program took place at China West Normal University in the Sichuan city of Nanchong, where students spent their mornings learning everyday language and their afternoons using what they’d learned: asking strangers for directions on a scavenger hunt, taking taxis, ordering food at restaurants — even singing in Chinese at karaoke bars. Since few foreigners visit Nanchong, the students were fully immersed in Chinese culture. 

Mizzou around the world

Barbara Lindeman, director of study abroad programs and assistant director of the International Center, says faculty-led programs like Volz’s are popular because students like to travel with professors they know and trust. Though trips to Western Europe are still favorites, student travel to farther-flung places, such as China and South Africa, is on the rise.

In fact, Mizzou students are more eager to see the world than ever before. The number of students studying abroad has increased by 300 percent in the past decade, Lindeman says. The university now offers about 400 programs in 60 different countries, more than 100 of which are Mizzou direct-relationship or faculty-led programs. Last year, approximately 1,100 students studied abroad, with more than half of them choosing short-term summer or intersession programs.

“I think students see the importance of study abroad and understanding peoples and cultures beyond the U.S.,” Lindeman says. “Our goal is to prepare students to take their role as world citizens — to be independent, have an acceptance of diversity, have a tolerance for ambiguity, to take positive risks.”

Culture vultures

Art by Suqin

This drawing by Lin was inspired by the camaraderie she has found with Jewish American friends in the United States.

Lindeman has done her fair share of positive risk-taking abroad, including two and a half years in China, so she’s equipped to prepare students. Her advice for minimizing culture shock: “Try to develop your own interest within the host culture, and try to learn more about it. Make a friend.” Lindeman studied Chinese tea and befriended elderly tea connoisseurs.

And Howard? Her biggest struggle was accepting the attention she drew as a 5-foot-8-inch blonde woman in China. Her remedy: immersing herself in Chinese history. “We talk about history being 200 years, and theirs is 4,000 to 5,000 years old,” she says.

In the United States, Lin has struggled with English and with adjusting to a different education system. In China, teachers are regarded with reverence, school is a very serious matter, and talking too much is a sign of arrogance. In the U.S., Lin says, teachers are both more casual and more interactive with their pupils. “In art class, the teacher always encourages the student to talk about their art. In China, we just draw or paint; we don’t need to talk about it. The opportunity of communication between student and teacher is so much here.”

Lin particularly values communication with her adviser, Leong, who, despite being Chinese and speaking Chinese, insists they converse exclusively in English.

Now that she’s adjusting to Missouri, Lin is ready to venture even further. Next summer, she says, she will try out the Art Department’s study-abroad program in Florence, Italy.

Read more in:  Arts & CultureBeyond CampusEducation

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012