When University of Iowa senior Can Zhang stepped into his dorm in Stanley Hall three years ago, he disappointedly found that his roommate was also Chinese — he had hoped to share a room with an American student.
Zhang, who is now vice president of the UI Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said he knows that many Chinese students were eager to make friends with American when they started school at the UI like himself. However, due to the language barrier and cultural hurdles, many found it hard to get involved with their American peers, which made their confidence fall.
Then they automatically stick together with Chinese, and that is how a circle of Chinese is formed, Zhang added.
Zhang said he had wanted to share his thoughts with domestic students, and to learn what Americans think of Chinese students. Soon he will get a chance to do so in a student workshop on the undergraduate experience at the UI – Global Leadership Starts Here (GLSH).
GLSH is a bottom-up initiative aiming to foster conversation and connection among domestic students and Chinese students on campus. On Feb.22, during this daylong workshop of presentations and discussions, 50 invited UI undergraduates — 25 international and 25 domestic — will collaborate with faculty, staff, graduate student speakers and facilitators, defining key issues and tensions arising on campus and coming up with constructive ideas.
The past few years have witnessed a dramatic growth of the undergraduate population from the People’s Republic of China on the UI campus. In Fall 2007, only 68 of the 2,153 international students were from Mainland China, however, six years later, the Chinese undergraduate population has grown into 1,673, according to the UI International Students and Scholars Statistics.
While the diversity enriches the university, the sudden influx of Chinese undergraduates is not without problems.
Jeffrey Ding, a UI sophomore majoring in political science, said there is a significant disconnection between U.S. and Chinese students, particularly in classes at the Tipple College of Business, where a large proportion of students are from China.
“It’s a subtle division — international students usually sit by each other, domestic students sit by each other,” Ding said. “It’s not like explicit, like racism, like segregation, but there is that separation.”
Ding said he had noticed racist tweets against Asian students on campus flare last fall, which he believes came from a minority of people. Meanwhile, he doesn’t think it is a one-way issue.
“Yes, there are gaps; yes, the university is not dealing with it perfectly; yes, students don’t act perfectly in every instance,” said Ding, who moved to Iowa City from Shanghai when he was three. “Like international students are sometimes racist; international students sometimes don’t take enough time to learn about American culture…”
However, Ding said he views the workshop as an opportunity for more interaction between American and Chinese students, which is eventually going to help shape an essential foreign relationship in the future world.
University of Iowa Center for Teaching Director Jean Florman, who is on the steering committee of the GLSH workshop, said that the university was not prepared for the sudden influx of Chines students, thus, problems have emerged at various levels.
Florman hopes sensitive issues would be brought up during the discussions.
“We’re an academic institution where hard issues should be examined in every class,” Florman said. “Not about this issue necessarily, but that’s why we’re here — is to look at difficult subjects — difficult in terms of intellectually difficult, but also wrestling with social implications of what we’re doing.”
Florman said she hopes the workshop to be a starting point of promoting diversity and global understanding on campus –she is expecting more tangible outcomes in the long run.
“We are hoping that [the student participants] plan something, they articulate something that will change their lives around these issues, perhaps change the life of the university,” Florman said.
Meanwhile, Florman noted it would be important to make sure that central administrators and faculty members know what is achieved on the workshop day and what students expect from the university to enhance the international atmosphere on campus.
The GLSH workshop is organized by the UI Center for Asian and Pacific Studies. The UI Office of the Vice President for Student Life, Center for Teaching, International Programs, Honors at Iowa, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Tippie College of Business, School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Department of Communication Studies also get involved in planning.
Global Leadership Starts Here: A U.S.- China Student Workshop on the Undergraduate Experience at Iowa
Time: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Location: Adler Journalism Building, University of Iowa campus
This workshop is free and open to UI students, faculty and the general public. Contact Dongwang Liu at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to attend as an observer.