Tacoma/China—In a recent cultural exchange between U.S. and Chinese educators, UW Tacoma Chancellor Pat Spakes learned that American and Chinese educators have much to learn from each other.

On a 10-day trip to China organized by the American Association of Schools and Colleges, Chancellor Spakes and a group of fellow American educators attended the China Forum on International Education in Beijing. They also visited Lanzhou University and Lanzhou Technical University in Guangzhou province, where they met and talked with Chinese educators.

While visiting Dunhaung, a small city located on the edge of the Gobi Desert, she heard that the Chinese are investigating ways to provide access to higher education in remote, rural areas. Dunhaung has a vocational school, but no access to baccalaureate degrees. Officials in the area see education and tourism as the keys to economic stability, but don’t know how to provide university degrees when the nearest comprehensive university is many miles away.

When Chancellor Spakes explained that UW Tacoma is an excellent model of how to extend higher education access to underserved areas through repurposing older buildings, branch campuses and education centers — and that UW Tacoma serves as an important contributor to the economic development of the area — word quickly spread. She was invited to tell more about it.

The mayor of Dunhaung and his staff were excited by what they heard. They wanted to learn still more and suggested building a relationship with UW Tacoma and the city of Tacoma. They quickly wrote a letter of intent proposing a Chinese visit to Tacoma. A signing ceremony sealed the deal. Now Spakes and Tacoma Mayor-elect Marilyn Strickland are working on the next step — inviting Chinese officials here to learn more about how we do things.

“When you go on one of these trips you look for opportunities,” Spakes said. And she found them. A class of English translation students told the visitors they’d like to communicate directly with American students. So UW Tacoma Professor Jerry Finn, Spakes’ husband, who accompanied her on the trip, is arranging for UW Tacoma students to be email buddies with students at Lanzhou Technical University. Another opportunity Spakes found is a program that may bring Chinese faculty members to UW Tacoma to teach Chinese. “But one of the most interesting and unique opportunities is the letter of intent,” she said.

Spakes attended the China Education Expo, a major, international, five-city student college fair reportedly attended by millions of hopeful students. Many other U.S. colleges and universities exhibited there, all eager to recruit Chinese students.

“It’s clear that many Chinese students wish to study in the West, and that goal is increasingly gaining support,” she said. “We were able to witness first-hand the tremendous international effort to recruit millions of Chinese students to study in Europe and the United States.”

The 500 informational flyers about UW Tacoma written in Mandarin that Spakes had taken with her disappeared in minutes. “In fact, anything not nailed down — pennants, catalogs, pens — was eagerly scooped up,” she noted, smiling.

Spakes said that some officials are questioning the current model of Chinese education and suggesting changes. She observed that the Chinese education system emphasizes test performance over creativity and innovation. Lessons are learned by rote, without much interaction between teachers and students.

“The lack of innovation hampers the nation’s efforts to achieve their ambition of becoming the most important world power within the next decade,” Spakes said. “They’ve been a nation that manufactures, but doesn’t create.”

But that is changing. Some administrators are becoming more open to the idea of educators incorporating art, literature, history, culture and imagination into their curriculums. And sending students to the West to earn university degrees is seen as a way to help achieve that openness. Critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation are hallmarks of an American university degree.

“The surprise of the visit is that it was OK to voice the need to consider changes,” Spakes said. “The government no longer worries that students may not return to China from the West since the opportunities for employment seem much stronger in China.”

Spakes related a comment she heard from a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China. She said an American education is much broader than what is available in China, and even in Europe. “The U.S. education system,” Spakes said, “is still the envy of the world.”

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