Amy Yang, a Chinese student enrolled at Brenau University, is studying early childhood education as part of a program that this year brought 44 Chinese scholars to the Gainesville campus.

Making the Grade: University increases diversity with Chinese students

Amy Yang began learning English as a first-grader in China. “I was lucky that I went to school in a big city. Most students don’t start English until junior high,” she said. After years of watching American films and television shows, she was eager to experience the culture first-hand.

Two years ago, as a junior in college, Yang had the chance to continue her education and get a taste of American life when she was among the first Chinese scholars to enroll at Brenau University. After years of strengthening ties with Anhui Normal University near Shanghai, Brenau welcomed Yang and 17 other early childhood education majors in the program’s first phase.

This fall, 26 more Chinese students working toward education and English degrees joined Yang on the Gainesville campus where they’re adapting to the nuances of a new culture.

“In China, we don’t talk to people we are not familiar with, but here, people always say hello,” said Yang, a senior who hopes to return to China for a Master’s degree. “I find it very nice to smile and say hello to people I don’t know. And I also like that every Wednesday is fried chicken day.”

Having Chinese students on campus also benefits Brenau’s roughly 3,500 students, said Ed Schrader, now entering his 14th year as university president.

“The international experience goes both ways: We have an endowment focused on getting our students to experience international living, learning and education, but you can’t necessarily get a Southern student who hasn’t traveled far from home and who isn’t prone to spending a long time away from home to commit to international study,” he said. “This is an alternative that brings the world to them. It’s also a good business model: These are paying students who receive about the same level of scholarship as our [American] students do, so it generates additional cash flow.”

Schrader worked with connections of the university’s board and drew on his personal experience of working in China to establish the program.

“I first went to China in 1987 when I was a geologist for a German mining company, and after that, I made academic contacts with folks in central China in mid-’90s,” he said. “It takes a long time to develop full relationships with Chinese universities, and we spent several years getting to know each other. It also took time to decide what programs would recruit students so when they transferred, they’d be in pace to graduation. And we decided on early childhood education, English and environmental design because they are the most in demand in China.”

As part of the program, Brenau faculty members head to Anhui each semester to teach English, American history and education classes. “Sending our faculty there is unusual,” said Jordan Anderson, Brenau’s director of international students and programs, “but it puts the students in the unique situation of learning about Brenau, Gainesville and the South before they get here. And once they are here, they help our students learn their cultural perspectives. We can’t send every [American] student to China, England, Italy or Japan, but we can bring some international students here.”

Along with sharing and learning cultural customs, Yang is pleased to be studying at an American university. “Americans have the best education in the world, and being here is helping me learn new ways to teach that I can take back and use in China.”

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