Pepperdine Voice Magazine
Pepperdine Launches its New International Program in China.
by Megan Huard
Chris Van Velzer ('01, MBA '05) sat on a 24-hour train traveling to a small city in rural southern China. He stood out as the only foreigner, but when his companions learned that he could communicate in Chinese, they launched into conversation: "Where are you from?" they asked him. "What do you do? How much money do you make?"
The ice thus broken, a traveler wondered: "Right now it seems there is some friction in U.S. and Chinese relations. What do you think of this, and what do you think is the future of our two countries?" For the next six hours, Van Velzer's mostly uneducated and impoverished companions asked him nothing but this type of question.
"To me it captured the monumental, historical shift taking place in China," Van Velzer recalls. "An American from Malibu and a group of Chinese migrant workers discussing international politics and the future of Sino-American relations on a train in the middle of rural China. Not too long ago this encounter and conversation would have been unfathomable."
Not too long ago China was a very different place, yet today the country's increasing presence on the world stage is unmistakable. Select members of the Pepperdine community will soon witness history in the making when more than 40 Seaver College students take up studies this fall in the inaugural year of Pepperdine's study abroad program in Shanghai, China. Joining them is Thomas Reilly, associate professor of Asian studies, and overseeing the experience is program director Chris Van Velzer, along with his wife Corrie ('04).
The Van Velzers both worked for the University before moving to China in 2006. They planned to spend their first year studying Mandarin full-time, then seek work opportunities in their new home country. Back in Malibu, Charles Hall, Pepperdine's dean of international programs, was busy transitioning the Hong Kong study abroad program to mainland China; he invited Van Velzer to be program director.
"The British were the world power of the 1800s, the Americans were the world power of the 1900s, and many academics consider that China will be the world power of the 21st century," Hall notes, describing the University's motivation to develop the program. "If we are true to our mission—to produce global citizens—then we must provide the opportunity for our students to study in China."
To establish the new program, Pepperdine partnered with Fudan University, one of the most prestigious universities in China. Reilly will teach two courses during his year in Shanghai, but because Chinese law prohibits foreign universities from hiring local faculty directly, the Pepperdine students will be taught primarily by Fudan University professors and learn among Fudan students—an invaluable opportunity to improve their language skills.
"I hope to walk out of Shanghai with an extensive knowledge of Mandarin, both speaking and writing," says program participant Cliff Champion. "That language will open up such an enormous horizon of opportunities."
Much like Pepperdine's programs in Heidelberg, Florence, Lausanne, and Buenos Aires, the students will live together in a local facility. The Shanghai residence, known as the "Shanghai Jia," is a garden villa located in Puxi, an area that was part of the French concession back when control of the city was shared among the British, French, and Chinese. The Jia can accommodate approximately 45 students, and includes a faculty apartment, program office, three classrooms, a small library, computer labs, a large student lounge, and a private garden.
The building dates to 1937, a year of particular significance to Pepperdine. "I love to think that at the same time George Pepperdine College was opening, God was already preparing a home for the Shanghai program some 71 years later," Van Velzer says.
The Pepperdine students will take not only Chinese language courses but also Chinese history, literature, and culture. Each day will be its own learning experience, with some inevitable culture shock thrown in. "It's much more than strange food or a strange language. It's the radically different concepts of family and relationships, problem solving and thinking," Van Velzer explains. "Shanghai is very modern and cosmopolitan, but you can find pockets of 'local life' woven through the city—the alleyway markets, the steamed bun stands, the street vendors—it is a wonderful balance of an authentic Chinese experience with 'Western convenience.'"
These Western conveniences reveal just how rapidly the country has changed in recent years, and the kind of cultural shifts the students will experience. "When I first came to China in 1984," Reilly remembers, "at night the only lights in the city were those on bicycles—no street lamps, car lights, or illuminated buildings. Now everything's lit in neon. In Beijing 1995, the government wanted to promote the idea that every urban household should own a car in 10 years. I thought that was the most fanciful idea I had ever heard, yet think how many cars they pulled from the streets before this summer's Olympics."
Opinions about China are certainly mixed and heated; its relationship with Taiwan and human rights record in Tibet rank high among controversies. Through this program, however, Pepperdine has the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. Hall notes, "Not only do I want Pepperdine students to know China, I want China to know Pepperdine. We have a great opportunity to model the aspirations and values of a Christian university to the Chinese people."
With China on the tip of so many tongues these days, it's not surprising that nearly 80 students will participate in the launch of this exciting new program. "The high level of interest went beyond our expectations," says Hall, "yet it is consistent with what we are starting to see at most universities—students, more than ever before, are interested in China."