The Chinese Are Coming (To Learn)

Lawrence Technological University is among those universities welcoming increased ties with China through collaborative exchange programs – to the point that the Southfield school is almost better known in China than it is in its own backyard.

Over the last few years, faculty and students from the university’s Colleges of Arts and Science, Engineering, and Architecture and Design have established relationships with similar schools in China. In the College of Engineering, faculty from LTU teach eight classes at Shanghai University for Engineering Science (SUES). Those students can then come to LTU for master’s degrees in engineering, management, science education, or computer science.

Several exchange agreements exist between programs in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. One program brings students who want to pursue a degree in educational technology to Lawrence Tech for two months every summer. After four years of such intensive study, they earn their master’s degree.

Teachers in those programs also participate in a series of cultural events to get to know the city. They visit Detroit’s riverfront, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Detroit Zoo, among others, to get a sense of American culture.

Other universities that the College of Arts and Sciences has partnered with include Sichuan Normal University, ZheJing Normal University, and Beijing Normal University branch in ZhuHia, outside of the city.

China’s higher education system is very different than that of the U.S., says Dr. Hsaio-Ping Moore, dean of LTU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Unlike here, where nearly every student who wants to and can afford to attends college, students in China must pass a rigorous entrance exam which is given annually, on one day only. If you’re sick that day, you wait until the next year.  

Because of their highly competitive system, Chinese college students tend to be better at study skills than American students, Moore explains. “I hope [those study skills] will rub off on our American students, because they are phenomenal,” she says.

On the other side of the coin, she hopes Chinese students will glean a greater sense of civility from American culture. She points to her own upbringing in Taiwan from 30 years ago. Everyday social niceties people take for granted here, like holding the door for the person behind you, were almost nonexistent. Those instincts grew, however, as the Taiwanese traveled to the rest of he world. Today, many of those social influences can be seen in Taiwanese society. “There’s been enormous progress,” she adds. “I see [mainland] China as being 20 to 30 years behind Taiwan in this respect. This group of students, when they go back home, are going to change society just as the Taiwanese did. The benefits are going to be enormous for them.”

Chinese students at Lawrence Tech also get a broader education than they would at their native schools. If they were majoring in, for example, chemistry, they would specialize in that subject and not take general education classes. “After they finish here they have the best of both worlds,” Moore explains. “They have the in-depth education in their technical field in their home country, and have the breadth of a technical education here.”

Moore says that in an increasingly global economy, students need to be aware of and interested in cultures other than their own, and willing to get out of their comfort zone. “We live in a global world, and [students] need to understand people from different cultures,” she says. “It is a challenge we’re facing, but having students from different parts of the world will only help with the situation.”

Lawrence Tech’s relationship with Chinese institutions is still in the process of expanding. The College of Architecture and Design recently signed memos of understanding with Shanghai University for Engineering Science (SUES) to offer classes in graphics and imaging, interior design, and transportation design. It also has an agreement with Soochow University (which is located in the hometown of legendary architect I.M. Pei) to look at creating yet more student exchange programs.

LTU students worked with SUES students on a prestigious art exhibit in Shanghai called the Symbolic City Art Exhibition, which honored Confucius, and was equivalent to a major traveling museum exhibit in the U.S..

So far, the exchange between Lawrence Tech and the Chinese schools has been largely one-way. Both Moore and LeRoy note that while most Chinese students have at least a basic ability to speak, read and write English, very few American students have even the slightest knowledge of Chinese. That’s a disadvantage when students are expected to do university-level work at the Chinese partner schools. However, both say they expect things to change as more K-12 schools offer Chinese language classes. As a harbinger of things to come, Oakland County Schools recently added Chinese language studies to its curriculum.

Glen LeRoy, dean of the College of Architecture, says that design is an excellent way to bridge the cultural divide between U.S. and Chinese students. “In many ways, those rules of design – rules of order, rules of massing — many times those supersede cultural differences,” he says.  “Good form is good form; it doesn’t matter what culture it’s in.”

Most of the architectural work being done in China today is designed by Western firms, which create the basic concept and look of a building, with U.S. and Chinese designers collaborating on the final construction. One of the goals in working with Chinese schools is to push them towards developing concepts of their own. “The design vocabulary, if you go to China, doesn’t look that much different in the style of architecture than you will see in U.S. cities or European cities, but the students studying here will lead the great revolution in Chinese firms,” LeRoy says.

For U.S. schools and students today, cross-cultural understanding is the most important part of the exchange programs, especially as China becomes a rising economic powerhouse.

“We’re now dealing with people in our day-to-day business across cultures in a way we never have before,” LeRoy says. “To the degree we can understand each other’s beliefs and orientation, and understand the background we each come from, it breaks down these barriers of misunderstanding we have had in the past.”

By Amy Kuras

All Photos by David Lewinski

Dean LeRoy-LTU

Dean Moore-LTU