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.

 By Judy Cartwright

When Jing Chen, BU ’99, left her Beijing home 20 years ago for the journey of more than 7,000 miles to start a new chapter in her life, she had no guarantees about what that future would look like. She knew simply that she wanted to use her dreams as a foundation.

In December 1995, the journey took her into Atlanta’s busy international airport and then another 60 miles north to Gainesville, Georgia. She had been accepted to Brenau University, where she would enroll in January for the spring semester. She graduated three and a half years later with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. It was the first step on a career path that has led her to a media-business career in New York City.

Jing Chen, WC '99, believes she was the first student from the People's Republic of China to enroll and graduate from Brenau.
Jing Chen, WC ’99, believes that when as a child she had dreams of conversing with French and Italian people in near-perfect English, a language skill she did not possess, it foretold her destiny to study and work in the United States.

Chen, now 43, says that, although she still has family in China, she probably will stay in the United States for the rest of her life. Pursuing opportunity in the West like that she has found was one of the dreams she harbored about life and career from the time she was a teenager growing up in China’s capital.

“I started getting very interested in Western culture in high school,” she says. “Somehow, I had a drive inside that I just had to learn more English and know more about the culture.”

She did well in her school’s regular English classes, but she signed up for extracurricular studies in the language, too. Because of that proficiency, when she graduated, she landed a job in the international department in the Beijing headquarters of the state-run Agriculture Bank. She worked for three years in a position her friends called a “gold job” because of its good salary and benefits.

However, Chen’s horizons stretched further. “I had a strong sense, first of all, that I would not remain in China. For example, at night I had a lot of dreams in which I traveled around the world – New York, London, Paris, Italy, you name it. I was a night traveler in my dreams.”

Those dreams were especially beguiling because they found her conversing with people in other lands not in their native tongues but in English – and conversing fluently.

“So I was always puzzled about my dream, what that was all about,” she says. Although she had earned high marks in all of her English classes, Chen regarded her skill in speaking English as subpar. When she got to Brenau, she encouraged fellow students to tell her when her spoken English was less than perfect.

For many people, the prospect of uprooting, traveling half way around the world and planting in a country where you did not know anyone and, even if you did, could not speak the language well enough to communicate with them, could be a confidence-shattering deterrent.

However, Cheng had other problems before she could even get on the plane to Atlanta.

Her employer, The Agriculture Bank, told her she could not even apply for a passport and visa to the United States until after she quit her “gold job.” What if the visa then was denied? Tough. She would not be permitted to return to the job.

“Basically my dad said, ‘You’re going to have to think about this thoroughly [because the bank job] is a good job, with good opportunities.’ And my mom said, ‘If you don’t get a visa to the United States, you have no job. You must think about it.’”

If you ever meet Chen, you will instantly determine that there is no deficiency in self-confidence. She simply never considered that her dream would not come true. “I [told myself and others] that I’m taking responsibility for my actions. So, I quit my job.” The government then approved her student visa.

Her decision paid off not only with the degree from Brenau but also with a master’s degree in taxation from Georgia State University. Subsequently she joined the Atlanta office of the international accounting firm, KPMG. In 2013, she moved to New York, where she is now the business development manager for the newspaper Epoch Times.

“I came to the United States to try a new life,” Chen says. “The funny thing, now that I’m looking back, is that I cannot believe 20 years went by that fast.” She says her parents, both accomplished university graduates, were supportive of her decision. “I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t been. I don’t know. I never thought they would say ‘no’.”

And she laughs. “I’m very strong-willed in this way, in a good way.”

Amityville, New York-based writer Judy Cartwright is a retired reporter, editor and columnist for Newsday.

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