Almost 20 years ago, The Confucius Institute was established as a nonprofit program to promote Chinese language and culture throughout the world. By 2014, 475 CIs were operating in more than 90 nations, with 100 of them in American universities.
CCSU is the first and only university in Connecticut selected to host this prestigious program.
“Because we’re a global economy, this opportunity for our students to travel and study aboard, we believe, will give them the confidence to be actors on the world stage,” says Steven Kliger, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy & Social Research and the Confucius Institute at CCSU.
CI is a collaboration with the Center for International Education and Shandong Normal University, CCSU’s sister university in Shandong Province, China. Since 2015, students in the Honors Program and the Educational Opportunity Program have traveled to China every spring via CI in partnership with the university’s Passport to Global Citizenship Program.
“We wanted to identify a diverse group of students and also first-generation, low-income students, and offer the opportunity to study abroad,” says EOP Director Awilda Reasco.
EOP students receive stipends to bring their out-of-pocket cost down to $300, including round-trip airfare. In China, CI pays for the students’ meals, accommodations, transportation, and admission to cultural sights and classes.
The most recent Passport to Global Citizenship trip from May 14 to 23 included 10 EOP students and seven Honors students who traveled with Mei Zongxiang, associate director of the Confucius Institute at CCSU; Robert Wolff, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences; and Reasco. The group traveled throughout the region, including sightseeing trips to Beijing, Jian, Heze, Shanghai, and Qufu, the hometown of Confucius himself.
A Life-changing opportunity
Building off a successful visit to Dandelion Middle School in Beijing in 2017, this year Shandong Normal University arranged for the CCSU group to visit Baifosi Elementary School, its poverty reduction partner school, which enrolls students from predominately rural, low-income areas in Dongming County.
The CCSU students taught fifth- and sixth-grade English classes at the school, using basic English and Chinese words and creative teaching methods that use drawing and dance to communicate. After classes, the CCSU group participated in after-school activities and games with the Chinese students and even organized a school-wide dance activity. Wolff, Reasco, and Zongxiang also presented the school with 100 children’s books hand-picked by CCSU students.
Starting in January, prior to their travel to China in May, Zongxiang teaches the students basic conversational Chinese, an introduction to Chinese culture, and a little about the country’s history.
“The point is to prepare our students, who are going to a foreign country, to be comfortable about being uncomfortable,” she says.
Zongxiang, Reasco, and Wolff have witnessed first-hand how this travel abroad program has been a life-changing experience for their students.
“I’ve traveled with the students for the last four years — 57 students total,” Zongxiang says. “And I really think this is a life-changing experience for our students to be ready not only as global students, but as global leaders.”
In their program feedback, most of the students cited their exchanges with the young Chinese students as the best part of the trip.
Honors program student Mohammad Bilal Khan notes, "Helping those children really opened my eyes to how blessed I am for the opportunities we have. Looking at them smile and laugh and make the best of life even while in poverty really showed me money isn’t the answer to everything and that I want to help more people rise out of poverty."
The Chinese students underlined EOP student Rashadahy Porche Carter's quest for higher education.
"As a social work major I got to see a smaller ecosystem thrive despite their economic disadvantages. These students inspired me to continue to pursue my degree," she says.
For some, the trip also offered fresh perspective on what it means to be an American.
Wolff notes, “Here we have this group that’s part European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, and African. You have the ‘melting pot,’ and in the U.S those differences matter. So, for the Muslim students in our group, who may not always feel part of American society because they’re treated differently, in China, they were all Americans.
“When we left, those kids were really sad to see us go,” Wolff adds. “And our students were moved to tears as the bus pulled out with 200 to 300 school children waving goodbye. The adults were pretty emotionally wrought, too.”
Wolff and Reasco point out that the trip also provides an opportunity for EOP and Honors students, who may have never connected before the trip, to get to know each other.
“Now they’re friends and supporting each other," Reasco says. "That’s very important for our institution.”
CI on campus
CI at CCSU offers events for the whole community, including Chinese New Year celebrations and other cultural programs featuring art, theater, and dance.
The Elihu Burritt Library houses a CI library of 3,000 titles ranging from Chinese textbooks to Chinese history, poetry, and literature available to students and the public.
“We also have Chinese language programs in K-12 schools in several communities,” Zongxiang says. “The goal is to help local schools build a pathway for students to continue to learn.”
For the 2018-19 academic year, CI is bringing a full-time visiting professor from Shandong Normal University, Chen Liu, to teach for-credit classes in the Modern Languages Department at no cost to CCSU, carrying a five-year commitment. For the first time CI is also providing six one-time $1,000 scholarships to entering freshmen from EOP.
“It’s building a pipeline of Chinese learners who want to enroll at CCSU,” Kliger says.
Since more than 80 percent of CCSU graduates remain in Connecticut, that pipeline has the potential to propel CCSU graduates into unique, leadership professions.
“We look to our student body as the next generation of our state’s public, political, not-for-profit, and business leaders," Kliger says. “Our president, Dr. Toro, has been a strong supporter of the study abroad program and has been instrumental in encouraging us to continue growing.”