UW-Eau Claire students Noah Turecek, left, and Mingyang Qu meet to catch up on classes and life, but also to help each other build their language skills.

Once or twice a week, Noah Turecek and Mingyang Qu track each other down on UW-Eau Claire’s campus so they can chat over a meal or study together in the library.

Typical college buddies helping each other get through a tough semester of classes?

Absolutely, although the support these Blugolds give each other goes well beyond the norm.

Turecek is an information systems major from McFarland who is learning to speak Chinese.

Qu, an international student from China who is studying finance at UW-Eau Claire, is working to improve his English.

When the friends hang out, they catch up on classes and life, but also help each other build their language skills and their understanding of cultures that differ from their own.

“We meet one to two times a week to help each other practice our English and Chinese,” says Turecek, a senior who is earning certificates in Chinese and Asian studies. “While the language barrier can sometimes be a bit tough, it’s an incredible learning experience for us both, and I consider him a very good friend. When we meet up to get food or study at the library it’s always a judgment-free zone, and we’re always interested in helping each other become better speakers of our non-native languages.”

Building friendships like his with Qu is among the reasons he encourages other Blugolds to enroll in Chinese or other language courses, says Turecek, who credits Dr. Kaishan Kong, an assistant professor of languages, with introducing him to Qu and other native Chinese speaking students.

“Professor Kong does a great job of introducing students in her Chinese classes to students from China so we can help them get acclimated to our culture and practice English, and in return, they can help us practice Chinese,” Turecek says.

Turecek is one of 20-plus Blugolds currently enrolled in Chinese language and culture courses at UW-Eau Claire. Several UW-River Falls students also take the classes, a distance-education opportunity created after budget cuts eliminated Chinese classes on the nearby campus, Kong says.

“I’ve been fascinated with China since middle school, mainly because the culture and geography is just so different than what I’ve grown up in,” Turecek says. “I enjoyed studying Spanish for three years in high school, but I fell in love with Chinese in college.”

Sophomore Caitlin Hedberg also discovered a passion for the Chinese language and culture in middle school, taking her first class as an eighth-grader.

She was drawn to it because of the beauty of the Chinese characters, one of the many things the physics major from Carver, Minn., still loves about the Chinese language.

After four years of high school Spanish, Hunter Raatz, a sophomore from Watertown, came to college wanting to study a language but looking for something “a little more out there.”

UW-Eau Claire’s Chinese courses were exactly what the political science major had in mind.

Now in his second Chinese class, Raatz says the courses are challenging, but worth the effort because he’s learning to speak a language and understand a culture that he had known little about.

“It’s helping me be more open to new ideas and beliefs, especially those that are not common in the United States,” Raatz says.

With China emerging as a leader in the world’s economics, politics and technology, a growing number of Blugolds are realizing that understanding the Chinese language and culture will help them personally and professionally, Kong says.

As a result, the numbers in UW-Eau Claire’s Chinese classes are steadily ticking upward, a trend that will benefit students now and in the future, Kong says.

“Chinese language and cultural competence are soft skills that open doors for graduates to tremendous job opportunities, but also improve individuals’ cultural compassion and empathy,” Kong says. “Research shows that learning languages is beneficial to multiple skills, such as communication, concentration and problem-solving skills.

“Learning a language and culture empowers people with passion and curiosity to interact with others, overcome fear of unfamiliarity, build a community, engage in meaningful conversations and construct a peaceful world that celebrates cultural equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Integrating culture in language classes is a priority in the Chinese program, Kong says, noting that she creates many opportunities for students to interact with people from Chinese cultural backgrounds.

For example, international students from Chinese-speaking regions, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan, often work with students in the Chinese classes on speaking projects. The shared projects expose the Chinese language students to different vernaculars, and the international students can practice discussing cultural topics in English.

As UW-Eau Claire enters into new agreements with universities in China, more students from China are studying here, and more students from UW-Eau Claire are studying or engaging in research in China, creating formal and informal opportunities for U.S. and Chinese students to learn from one another.