The Global Imaginary

By Assistant Professor Stephanie Danes Smith

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“I used to think my competitors were only Chinese, but now I realize my competitors are international,” said the young Chinese student from a town near Shanghai who studied Crisis Communication with me this week.  She dreams of a future where she travels and works internationally.

She is not alone.  In two short weeks, I’ve had the privilege of teaching slightly more than 400 students, the vast majority of whom are Chinese.  Almost all of them are undergraduate students enrolled at Sichuan University.  Every undergraduate student I surveyed plans to go to graduate school, and every graduate student I met hopes to study abroad, usually in America.

Most of these students have not been to America. They say they imagine America to be “beautiful” and “exciting.”  They may have friends or family in America, so they know it is possible to go to America and be successful. They’ve met other international students, and they know it is possible to study and succeed in other countries, too.

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Such knowledge is a powerful thing.  It motivates them to prepare now:  to learn English, to study the West, to ask questions of Westerners, to keep an open mind about the Western experience.  Almost every student I met shared two goals:  to earn money to come to study in America and to improve his/her English.

These Chinese students have global imaginaries.  They imagine a different way to live and a different place to live.  They think expansively about their places in the world.  And they plan for futures that are transnational.

These students are not abandoning China, as some might assume.  They are often the only children of their parents (the result of China’s one-child policy), and they humbly recognize their responsibility to come home to China to take care of their parents when their parents grow old.  They also feel a strong obligation to make their parents and grandparents proud, to succeed in ways that will improve the lives of their families in China.  They already understand that to be successful in China they must embrace — and, at times, compete with — colleagues of other nations.

And what of Kent State students?  Do our students have global imaginaries?

It’s not helpful to generalize, of course, but I have spent two intense weeks with 19 Kent State students who’ve come to a country far from home, where the language and culture are utterly foreign and where hailing a cab or ordering lunch is fraught with risk. At the beginning of 2016, these students did not imagine – could not imagine, perhaps – that they would soon visit China.  And yet here they are.  They have thrived beyond my expectations:  They have learned several Mandarin words and phrases, they recognize many Chinese characters and they are good at negotiating in malls and street markets. They love trying new food, visiting Chinese cultural centers and clubbing with Chinese friends (and a wide array of new friends from many countries).

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Getting here was an incredible leap forward, particularly for a few students who had never flown before.  Being here is making a tremendous difference in their world views and personal aspirations.

Our students will not return home the same. Their identities will now include all they have seen, done and tasted in China. Their sense of what is possible is now expanded. Their desire to explore more of the world is growing. And they recognize that to succeed, they must embrace – and, at times, compete with — international colleagues in a world where the marketplace is global.

Will we encourage their global imaginaries?  Will faculty and peers allow them to share what they’ve learned about themselves and about China in classes this fall?  Will we listen?  Will we encourage them to travel and study abroad again?

I hope I’ll always answer “yes.”

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