From left, Jing Chen with fellow alumna Jennifer Lewis, WC ’02, at an alumni gathering in New York; Autumn Zhao with the Abbot of the Buddhist temple she is helping to build near her hometown in China; and U.S. Army Capt. Yao Yao Zhu in Norcross, Georgia, trying to recruit future occupational therapists to military service

China Influence Shapes Women’s College, Builds Loyal Global Alumni Base

When Jing Chen, BU ’99, left her Beijing home 21 years ago for the journey of more than 7,000 miles to start a new chapter in her life, she had no guarantees about the future. The narrative of her story put Chen in 1995 at Brenau University. Three and a half years later she graduated with a degree in business administration and set out on a career path that has led her to a media business career in New York.

In those days of the early thawing in relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, only a small number of Chinese students could seek higher education abroad. Chen believes that she was the first student at Brenau from PRC, or mainland China, and certainly one of the first to graduate. Dozens of others followed her, including Mengqiu Zhao, WC ’14, BU ’15, and Yao Yao Zhu, BU ’08.

Jing Chen with fellow alumna Jennifer Lewis, WC ’02, at an alumni gathering in New York.
Related article: Jing Chen: Night Traveler
When U.S. relations with People’s Republic of China began the slow thaw in the late 1970s, only a handful of Chinese students – mostly older graduate students and researchers – studied in American colleges and universities. In the mid-1990s, Chinese students discovered Brenau. Jing Chen believes she was the first.

The 2015 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, published annually by the Institute of International Education, shows that 304,040 Chinese mainland students are in the US, a 10.8 percent increase over the previous academic year. In November, the China Daily news service pointed out that Chinese mainland students accounted for 31.2 percent of the total 974,926 international students in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2014-15 academic year.

“China remains the dynamo of global-student mobility, at times driving up international enrollments all by itself,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier in 2015. “In 2013-14, Chinese students accounted for almost 60 percent of the foreign-student growth at American colleges. Think about it this way: One of every three international students in the United States holds a Chinese passport.”

What impact will that have on Brenau? Plenty.

A little more than 40 years ago, Brenau was an all-white, all-female institution – no different from other institutions in the South and, indeed, in other regions throughout the country. Today, however, it is one of the most diverse in terms of student demographics: 48 percent Caucasian, 34 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic  and 3 percent Asian-American. The remaining 9 percent comprises a broad mix of international students from about 25 countries (from all five inhabited continents) and other races and ethnic groups. U.S. students hail from 40 different states.

The university, which through the years numbered no more than a handful of students from mainland China on any of its campuses, got a small boost in numbers just a few years ago when it established some cohort Master of Business Administration programs on the Gainesville campus. The first group was all Taiwanese whose island nation homeland remains a geopolitical rival with PRC. In the next couple of years, both Taiwanese and Chinese students occupied desks in Jacobs building on the Gainesville campus while participating in the same cohorts, and as residential students, they were neighbors in apartments nearby.

Autumn Zhao with the Abbot of the Buddhist temple she is helping to build near her hometown in China.
Related article: Autumn Zhao Builds for the Future by Discovering the Past
With a couple of Brenau degrees, the Chinese student returned to her home to help with construction of a new Buddhist temple as the Chinese government relaxes restrictions on religious practices.

However, starting in the fall 2016 term, the numbers of Chinese students and alumni will begin a dramatic increase when the first 27 Chinese students will transfer into the Women’s College from Anhui Normal University to complete the last two years of their undergraduate studies in early childhood education. Almost all of them will be Brenau Women’s college residential undergraduate students. When all similar 2+2 agreements for English majors and nursing students are fully implemented, the Women’s College enrollment – which the university has stated should be capped at about 1,000 to keep it viable and competitive – will swell to as many as 180 Chinese students a year in steady rotation. In most cases, the students – or their parents – will be paying their own tuition, room and board, and other expenses while they reside in Georgia.

“I hope we all recognize the value that these students bring to the Women’s College and to Brenau University,” President Ed Schrader says. “Both education majors and English majors have experienced enrollment declines in recent years because of the economy and other factors. These agreements will increase the strength of both so that Brenau can continue to offer degree programs that have long been part of its tradition. And, wherever these students go after graduation, they will all be Brenau alumni, Brenau ambassadors to the rest of the world.”

Although China wants its well-educated citizens to return home and make societal contributions there, as Brenau’s history demonstrates, some will and some will not.

Chen, whose parents and family remain in China, says she probably will not return to her home in Beijing. She credits her time at Brenau for providing the foundation she needed to build a successful career a world away from her natural support system in her native land. Whether future Chinese students chose to return home after graduation of live elsewhere in the world, she says, “Brenau will be an asset to them, I believe.”

Zhao, known at Brenau as Autumn, earned an undergraduate degree in music and a master’s degree in interior design. She has returned home to Zhengzhou to help research, plan and develop the construction of the new Shifo Buddhist Temple, styled on the iconic Chinese architecture from a thousand years ago.

“Attending Brenau is a different experience from attending university in China,” Zhao says. “Brenau is peaceful and has much smaller classes. I enjoy the close relationships between students and teachers. You can’t get that kind of one-on-one attention in a Chinese university.”

Thea Moore and Juan Bryant speak with Captain Yao Yao Zhu during a presentation about OTs in the military on Brenau's Norcross campus. Moore is a 25 year veteran of the Air Force and Bryant a 20 year veteran of the Navy.
Related article: Captain Courageous Yao Yao Zhu took an unusual path for a rising U.S. military medical officer. It went through brenau, but it started in China.

Zhu earned a dual B.S./M.S. in occupational therapy and remained in the United States. She is now U.S. Army Capt. Zhu, based at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, a commander of a medical personnel recruiting company with six recruiting centers and a staff of about 30 officers, senior enlisted personnel and civilian employees. She applauds Brenau’s embracing the 2+2 program and says it will be a great fit for both the university and students.

“It is a great concept,” she says. “Understanding the [Brenau] culture appreciation and open-mindedness will be great for the students. Experiencing American life will be important, not just the academics. I hope the Anhui students will make good friends and find good mentors like I did.”

You can read more about these three Brenau alumni in separate articles.

– Judy Cartwright, Alison Reeger-Cook and David Morrison

You must be logged in to post a comment.