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Last Sunday I returned to the US from a two week trip in China with several Pace colleagues.  Our trip was designed around two themes: learning more about Chinese language and culture and attending the first annual Executive Board meeting for the Confucius Institute (CI) at Pace to be held in China, in honor of the second anniversary of the establishment of the Pace CI.  The Executive Board meeting included colleagues from our partner institutions, Nanjing Normal University and the Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG). 

China has one time zone across the entire country which is exactly 12 hours from EDT, so we did not have to reset our watches and phones—though I had to remember to set my alarm for 6:30 PM to be awakened on time for our hugely busy days!  Nearly every day, we left our hotel between 8:30 and 9:00 am and did not return until 8:00 or 9:00 pm.  The first shock we faced was losing half a day: leaving the US on Sunday afternoon and arriving in China 13 hours later on Monday afternoon.  The second was seeing so much English on various signs and still feeling cut off at not being able to read the Chinese and really know all that was going on.

Our trip left an impressionistic collage of images and encounters that whirled by at breakneck speed.  Traveling with a group of people I knew who are fluent in English and experiencing many of the same reactions gave the trip a comfort level it might not have had if I were traveling alone.  Having so many of the arrangements made for us was both a comfort and a constraint: initially it was great to hit the ground running, visiting so many iconic locations in Beijing and filling every hour with new experiences.  By the end of the trip, the tyranny of the schedule became a drain, and the group rebelled, asking for more free time to just wander on our own, to experience the “real China” by walking the local streets, shopping in the local stores or simply resting and trying to organize our thoughts about this stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our voyage was through urban, eastern China: Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai.  We traveled by plane, van, bus and high-speed train.  Everywhere we saw change: the modern juxtaposed on the ancient, the Western superimposed on the Eastern, the closed society grappling with open expression, the pride in the distant past (the accomplishments of each long-gone dynasty) and the race from the near past (the Cultural Revolution) toward some, as yet not fully defined, future.  Early on, we visited Tsinghua University in Beijing where we were introduced to several faculty members, one of whom studied the Sociology of Transition.  That concept, Transition, encapsulated what we saw at every turn: a society energetically on the move, filled with the excitement of creating a new culture and a new place in the world, yet still looking back at past glories and recent struggles, carrying these losses and pains along the way.

The strongest impression I came away with was the optimism of a culture on the move toward a future people anticipate will bring positive improvements.  Coming back to the US, the contrast is stark: our optimism has been replaced by a sense of struggle with persistent high unemployment, huge deficits, trade imbalances, the loss of global prestige, increasingly fractious institutions and political factions more interested in blocking the opposition than in solving the serious problems that dominate our culture.  The traditional drive and energy that characterized our culture and the self-confidence in our future seem missing in comparison.  We need to focus on changing our culture, going “back to the future” to reclaim our energy, optimism, drive, and sense of self determination through investment in ourselves and each other.

Of course everything is not copacetic in China, even in the up and coming urban areas. You can read headlines almost every day in The New York Times on issues of human rights violations, censorship, corruption, safety, pollution and poisoning, just to mention a few that appeared this past week.   Few people wanted to talk about societal problems and our guides would at times deny there were any, at least in the capital.  But we did see homeless people on occasion; a strong, intimidating police presence; older people forced to retire; signs of crime and poverty; a perpetual haze in the sky and an increasing wealth gap between the haves and have nots.  China is on the move, but not all of the directions are positive.

The second major observation is how large China is: the raw numbers don’t fully convey just how many people are crowded into China’s major cities or that they constitute only 30% of the entire population.  You really feel the impact when stuck in Beijing traffic (there is no rush hour—it is ALWAYS crowded) or visiting public spaces, which can be vast and/or hugely overcrowded.  A more sobering thought:  If China and the US educate the same proportion of their respective populations, China will have 4 times as many educated people ready to boost their workforce to new levels. 

The third impression is the extent to which China is investing in its future.  At a time when the headlines in the US complain about the amount of homework students must do (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/education/16homework.html?scp=1&sq=homework&st=cse), two of the Chinese Universities we visited, Nanjing Normal University and East China Normal University, have each completed large new campuses that would allow them to expand their outreach.  Further, they are both eager to develop exchange programs with Pace to allow their faculty and students greater access to the richness of educational opportunity in the US, as well as to bring US students and faculty to China so they can appreciate the gains China has made.

At each university where we stopped, we were told about which programs ranked the highest, how many students they were educating, how excellent their faculty is in competing on the world stage: this was clearly the message they wanted us to carry home!   Here lies a challenge for us in the US and at Pace, a challenge we can meet if we reset our goals and ambitions.  I grew up in the post-Sputnik age: the Russians had launched the first space satellite in 1957. The US responded to this challenge by investing strongly in education, in science and technology.  Even decades later, when I entered graduate school, remnants of this investment remained and helped cover the costs of my education.  Where is this investment today?

We read that despite the high unemployment rate, US employers seeking highly educated professionals are having difficulties filling their open positions (e.g., http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2040964,00.html).  This is a challenge Pace can help meet: our Strategic Plan calls for us to graduate “thinking professionals.”  The term thinking professionals encapsulates many of the central ideas and ideals of Pace, starting with the key notion that all of our students have the capacity to become professionals and leaders in their fields.  It elaborates by adding on the notion of thinking—a central tenet of a modern liberal arts education, the kind of education that Pace offers to all of our undergraduate students, particularly through Dyson College.  Thinking, especially deep thinking, requires a broad knowledge base, an understanding of human nature and human accomplishments, an ability to effectively express and communicate one’s thoughts and conclusions, and the ability to critically examine all sides of an argument to further hone one’s own ideas.  All of these skills and areas of knowledge are included in our Core Curriculum and in the Dyson College majors. 

This trip to China made it clear to me that we have to return to investing in ourselves and inspiring our colleagues to reinvest in our purpose at Pace.  We have to take this message home as well, and convince our neighbors to invest in education, in innovation and in excellence.  We can only succeed in educating students at the college level if they come to us prepared.  We can only compete on the world stage with a well-prepared population, eager to take on the challenges and having the skills and creativity to make a difference.  These traits have always epitomized the American ideal and they are the very traits that the global community seeks to understand and co-opt. 

We also need to take advantage of the opportunities to partner with China for mutual benefit.  Every school we visited wanted to partner with us, to send their faculty and students to the US to learn from us and to host our faculty and students in China.  While they are learning from us, we can also learn from them.  We need to match their enthusiasm, their hard work, their energy and their commitment to a better future. 

Before I went to China, I had a lot of concerns: what will I eat, what if I can’t find Western rest rooms, what if someone gets ill on our trip, what if we don’t get along as a group.  In the end, there was plenty to eat, no problems with the rest rooms, no one got seriously ill, and we got along surprisingly well.  What I did not anticipate, but should have, is the excitement and energy of a culture in transition; the vibrancy of a culture turning its back on the horrors of its recent past and embracing a future with confidence; and how contagious and inspiring these attitudes can be.  If you are looking for inspiration, motivation, and a strong shot of optimism, I urge you to visit China and bring home a big dose of that energy to use here.  And while you are there, be sure to impart a strong sense of what has impelled us forward: freedom of expression, freedom of the press, human rights and democratic values!

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