Mississippi Business Journal by Nash Nunnery
Northeast Mississippi and the People’s Republic of China are a little more than 7,000 miles apart.
Culturally-speaking, the distance between the two regions is immeasurable, not unlike the difference between Oxford’s Town Square and China’s Great Wall.
However, the Chinese Language Flagship Program at the University of Mississippi is chipping away the barriers between two cultures on opposite ends of the earth, both literally and figuratively.
Donald Dyer, a UM professor and co-coordinator for the program, said the idea for the Chinese Language program was born almost a decade ago.
“We talked to a couple of government officials who came to campus and said they were looking at universities for a program that would encourage American students to learn another language,” he said. “With (co-coordinator) Michael Metcalf’s connections and a little luck, we thought we could build a program that is second to none.”
The university’s Chinese Language Flagship program is one of only three in the nation.
Established in 2003 by a grant for the National Security Education Program, the Language Flagship, as it is commonly known at Ole Miss, is one of five NSEP initiatives and is designed to change the way Americans learn language.
The UM program has been ultra-successful and graduated 24 students. Currently, 60 students are enrolled in Language Flagship at the university and as of mid-January, another 58 have sent applications to enroll for the 2011 summer session.
Unique aspects of the five-year program include an intensive study for beginners in the summer prior to their freshman year, a core Flagship Chinese course taught each semester and two nine-week summer sessions in China.
The fifth, or “capstone,” year is a transition for students into professional life. In addition to classes in Chinese media and advanced composition at Nanjing University, students select classes in their individual area of study.
“Many of our students are in high demand by both the federal government and private sector,” Dyer said. “We have a senior now who has a triple major — Chinese, chemical engineering and chemistry. Global job opportunities are endless for students such as her.”
The program’s reputation for excellence is growing, Metcalf said.
“Right now, we have students interested in the program from all over the country,” he said. “Our graduates are working in the private sector, government and pursuing graduate degrees. In fact, we had a recent graduate that worked for Hood Industries in Jackson but has since elected to attend graduate school.”
Students “almost always” return from China with a positive outlook on their experiences, Dyer said, adding that the UM program is built around participants integrating themselves into Chinese communities.
“People who come back after their first summer in China are just amazed,” Dyer said. “The students just seem more worldly.”
Following the semester, internship opportunities are arranged for each student to gain insight into the culture of the Chinese workplace.
University officials say the goal of the Language Flagship is to create global professionals, individuals who possess superior-level proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. Also, the program offers students a deeper level of cultural understanding necessary to succeed in working in China and other Asian countries.
China’s once-sleepy economy has awakened to become a force in the 21st century. As globalization continues to expand, American companies will depend on workers who not only speak Chinese but also understand its culture, said Dyer.
Although all Chinese high school students are required to take several years of English before graduation, only a tiny fraction of American students study Chinese.
“There is a real national effort on the part of the U.S. and Chinese governments to get more foreign language studies in our schools,” said Metcalf. “We’re also hoping that Mississippi business will get behind the program and become involved, too.”