From Lake Lanier to the Yangtze River

Longtime Brenau professors Dr. Bryan Sorohan and Dr. Eugene Williams had an opportunity to visit one of the most prestigious colleges in China earlier this year. Under Brenau’s ‘two plus two’ partnership program with Anhui Normal University, more faculty and students – on and off campus – are set for similar international learning experiences.

The Chinese language consists of about 50,000 characters. Those who know 8,000 are regarded as well-educated, while knowledge of 2,000 is largely considered the bare minimum one needs to get by in daily life.

When Dr. Bryan Sorohan visited the world’s most populous country last spring, he knew zero.

“That was my first experience as an adult living in an environment where I was totally illiterate,” he says. “It’s not even like in Europe, where you can at least try to determine what an unknown word means.”

The 11th-year Brenau professor spent about three months in Wuhu, China, as part of a faculty exchange with Anhui Normal University. The same arrangement brought Anhui professors Lixin Zhu and Yan Zhou to the historic Gainesville campus in the spring 2015 term.

Dr. Bryan Sorohan and Dr. Eugene Williams meet with a delegation at Anhui Normal University in Wuhu,China.
Dr. Bryan Sorohan and Dr. Eugene Williams meet with a delegation at Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China.

Last year, Brenau announced a “two-plus-two” partnership with Anhui. The program allows early education childhood teaching majors to transfer to Brenau’s historic Gainesville campus after two years of study in China. Joint programs of the like are not common. In fact, the Chinese government only approved about 30 percent of two-plus-two applications submitted from 2011 to 2014.

Although Sorohan says residing in a city of 3 million people and teaching at a university with more than 30,000 students – without the benefit of knowing the native language – was somewhat daunting, it was nonetheless a remarkable experience.

He taught two English courses, a reading and research writing unit and an oral communication class, to about two dozen Anhui freshmen. He also took the helm of two additional School of Foreign Studies lecture series, which – in a sharp contrast to Brenau’s smaller class sizes – numbered well over 150 undergraduate and graduate students.

While all of the Anhui students demonstrated a firm grasp of the English language, Sorohan says there were some cultural barriers to cross. Many of the same reference points he uses in Brenau classes were unfamiliar to Anhui’s students and he had to overcome a “big social gulf” in professor-to-pupil communication.

“In Chinese culture, teachers rarely have social contact with students outside of the classroom,” he says. “You have to work a little bit to create an atmosphere like you’d find in an American school, where students feel confident enough to stand up and speak to the rest of the class and answer questions.”

Dr. Eugene Williams, an assistant professor of education and the chair of initial certification for Brenau’s College of Education, had similar observations during his three-week visit last spring.

“In their culture, the professor lectures and they just sit, listen and take notes,” he says. “They rarely have the opportunity to bring up questions, while in our culture, students are actively engaged in the classroom.”

The administrators at Anhui Normal University, Williams says, have a strong desire to “Americanize” their instructional model, however.

At two lectures, he spoke to officials about practices at Brenau’s College of Education and offered advice to create a more “collegial” atmosphere for the college students.

“Their education system is definitely in a transitional process,” Williams says. “They want them to open up a little more and develop a rapport with their students. Basically, they want their instructors to be more like our instructors.”

A different (but not that different) world

While students at Anhui differ from Brenau’s students in many facets, Sorohan says the two also have a surprising number of similarities. Like his students in Georgia, he says Anhui’s freshmen are incredibly tech-savvy, with a keen interest in both Western and Eastern pop culture. And – of course – they love their smartphones just as much as their analogues in the U.S.

The extremely studious Anhui coeds – for whom 10 classes constitute a “regular” semester course load – were also extremely accommodating to the visiting professor. They helped him pay his cell phone bills, send mail back to the States and even taught him how to read a few restaurant menus.

Sorohan visits Wuhu's Sculpture Park alongside two of his students.
Sorohan visits Wuhu’s Sculpture Park alongside two of his students.

Outside of classes, Sorohan describes Wuhu, which is about 300 miles to the west of the East China Sea, as a fascinating city steeped in centuries of history. However, he says there are also numerous signs of modern Western life surrounding Anhui. In between the Yangtze River and thousand-year-old Buddhist temples, he also recalls seeing McDonald’s restaurants and Wal-Mart stores.

He vividly recounts witnessing hundreds of people gathering in a public plaza next to campus every Friday and Saturday night.

“They would bring boomboxes and just dance all over the place,” he says. “Anyone who showed up could just get involved, in everything from ballroom dancing to what looked like Zumba-style aerobics.”

Beyond the hustle and bustle surrounding the campus, Williams remembers taking a few detours onto the city’s side streets. There, he encountered merchants selling fresh meats and vegetables at open markets and even a few restaurants serving alleyway meals.

Williams says the Wuhu locals, especially the students, were amicable, helpful and inviting people. Nor were all the residents bashful or hesitant to introduce themselves. He remembers visiting a Pizza Hut with Sorohan and encountering a mother and her young daughter, who was extremely enthusiastic to demonstrate her mastery of the lingua franca.

“The little girl shook my hand and her mother was trying to get her to say something in English,” he says, “and she just started singing her ABCs to us.”

‘Two plus two’ equals one

Twenty-seven two-plus-two students are expected to arrive at Brenau in August 2016, with a new group of undergraduates joining the campus each fall term. With Anhui preparing two dozen to nearly 50 graduates a year, an estimated 75 Chinese students will take up residence in Gainesville throughout the academic year once the program is fully implemented.

“For Brenau, it’s going to be wonderful for a variety of reasons,” Sorohan says. “Getting students in the College of Education who have that international education experience is going to be so beneficial, and that comparative perspective on the way things are done in other countries is going to be very valuable for our students.”

The two plus two program, however, is not limited to the College of Education. Anhui is also preparing a cohort of English students for study at Brenau, with a cohort of Anhui University of Chinese Medicine students soon gearing up for nursing courses in the United States.

By 2018, more than 200 students – all of them paying tuition – are expected to be enrolled in the program.

Brenau has plans to send staff and faculty to Anhui every spring and fall. Arts and Humanities instructor Dr. Sonia Robles traveled there in the fall 2015 semester, as did Jordan Anderson, director of programs and services for international students.

“Understanding American teaching methods is a huge learning curve for some international students, so being exposed to our faculty prior to their arrival will give them a significant advantage,” Anderson says.

That exposure, she says, will not just benefit Anhui students. It’s also going to help their professors and classmates at Brenau.

Diversity training for student leaders is already underway. An ambassador program for Anhui incoming students is also in the works.

Brenau instructors Dr. Eugene Williams and Dr. Bryan Sorohan pose for a plaza photograph with students at Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China.
Brenau instructors Dr. Eugene Williams and Dr. Bryan Sorohan pose for a plaza photograph with students at Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China.

“It’s going to be a fairly comprehensive program that will start in the spring, after we have selected five to seven Brenau students based on an application process similar to that of the peer assistants for FYS classes,” Anderson says. “In May we will we visit Anhui Normal University to meet our incoming students, and the ambassadors will use that time to get to know them and answer any questions the Anhui students may have.”

While the smaller, more intimate educational experience will certainly benefit Anhui transplants, Sorohan also says their arrival on campus will benefit other students, too.

“The opportunity to see different education systems and interact with colleagues and students from another nation is going to be extremely valuable as Brenau develops its international reputation,” he says. “When they interact with students from an entirely different culture, it helps to make their perspectives on the world more fully-formed, and it may give them more of an impulse to study abroad themselves.”

Williams – who made a return trip to China to teach two eight-week courses during the fall semester – says the two-plus-two partnership is truly a win-win arrangement. While Anhui students obviously benefit from the hearty dose of Americanized liberal education, he says Brenau students will benefit just as much from experiencing a different worldview and realizing that, despite their superficial differences, they share many of the same interests and desires.

“The biggest benefit is the exposure of both countries to one another,” he said. “You actually get to talk to people, and you learn that people are just people.”

In today’s global village, Anderson said international experiences are becoming increasingly vital for students. The faculty exchange program, she said, might provide just the spark U.S. students need to immerse themselves in educational experiences overseas and outside the lower 48.

“The reality of our world, and even our corner of Georgia, is that we all have to interact with people from every part of the globe, and from all cultural backgrounds,” Anderson said. “From my perspective, faculty are the greatest resource we have for encouraging students to study and travel abroad, so I hope that as they travel they are sharing their experiences with our students, which will hopefully give them a nudge towards factoring in study abroad as a part of their programs.”

First-hand Perspective

In the gallery below, Dr. Bryan Sorohan describes his experiences in Wuhu, China. All photographs are courtesy of Sorohan and the staff at Anhui Normal University.



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