For Chinese students, far from home, UWRF has become ‘very comfortable’

Posted April 20, 2018

Imagine stepping off a plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and being greeted with signs saying, “You’re Almost Home.” You get into a van with a complete stranger who drives 40 minutes to what seems like the middle of nowhere. You are checked into your room by a resident assistant, and then you realize it: Home is thousands of miles away.

This is exactly the experience that Lingfan Li, a sophomore from Zhejiang International Studies University, had as she arrived at UW-River Falls for the first time last August. She, along with 23 of her peers, are at UWRF to gain experience in American educational settings.

Li and her peers are here as a part of the partnership that UWRF and Zhejiang International Studies University have maintained for 30 years. The program allows ZISU students to complete their junior year at UWRF and gain valuable elementary education experience. Though the program has many advantages, participants also experience challenges, including language barriers and difficulties adjusting to American cultures.

The current program, which started in 2013, has ZISU students attend UWRF for their sophomore year, said Katrina Larsen, executive director for International Education. Students take eight credits of English as a second language courses and eight credits of teacher education courses tailored to meet their needs. One course requires students to spend six hours every Wednesday at one of the River Falls or Hudson elementary schools.

“As you can imagine, students love getting the opportunity to see how the United States public education system works and interacting with the elementary school teachers and students,” Larsen said.

Li was among the Chinese students who loved that opportunity, but after one semester of observing, she wanted more, she said. “So in the second semester I asked the teacher, ‘Can I have more time with the students?’ The teacher said yes. Every Wednesday my partner and I have a presentation or class for the students.”

Jiaxin Qian, sophomore, said she has noticed many notable differences from her experiences in China.

“The biggest difference between classrooms in China and here are the settings,” Qian said. “In China, the desks are placed row by row. In America, there are many different settings, including the roundtable discussion.”

Qian said that she appreciates the variety in classroom settings, because it promotes better discussions and sharing of ideas.

There have been 77 participants in the elementary education program, 23 of which are currently studying at UW-River Falls. A visiting scholar, Professor Weiwei Chen, is also on campus.

While ZISU students may spend a lot of time on their coursework, they still find time for fun activities on campus. Yuehui Yu, sophomore and chancellor student ambassador, said she appreciates the freedom to join organizations.

“In China, if we want to go to the organization, we have an interview,” Yu said. “But if we want to attend this organization (at UWRF), we can just go. But in China if we want to go into an organization, we have selections, so maybe if you go to the interview, you might fail out (of the organization).”

Yu got involved with the UWRF Dance Theater. She said she appreciates the organization because it provides members opportunities to explore their potential and freely express themselves.

While the program appears to have a lot of positives, participants also experience some challenges, and UWRF helps students work through them.

One way the university addresses the challenges is through host families. Among them is the family of Interim Provost Faye Perkins, who has hosted more than 30 students, including at least seven students and professors from China.

“We try to provide a welcoming atmosphere and help introduce them to our culture,” Perkins said. “When our sons were growing up, our international students felt like they had little brothers and were a part of our family — inviting them over for holidays, birthdays, special occasions or just to hang out helped them when they were homesick.”

In addition to homesickness, another challenge international students experience is language.

“Even though they may have had years of English training in their schools, it is very different when you are around native speakers who generally speak at lot faster than they are used to,” Perkins said. “Most international students have to study very hard, and do a lot of reading, in order to understand their course material.”

Despite the difficulties ZISU students may encounter at UWRF, they still find the campus homey, said Li, considering how strange everything felt after first arriving at MSP International Airport.

“The atmosphere here is very free and very comfortable for me,” she said. “Like what we have in our classes. They are a very, very comfortable place.”