Encouraging students to push beyond their comfort zones and challenge themselves in unique ways is a central characteristic of UW-Eau Claire — a place where innovative and experiential learning thrives.

This reputation for creating bold new learning opportunities has clearly made its way around the globe.

This spring semester, 54 Chinese students from the Changshu Institute of Technology have joined the Blugold tradition, pushing themselves past their comfort zones as they adjust to life a world away from their home campus in China for the two-year portion of a unique dual-degree plan.

UW-Eau Claire currently is one of only 35 universities in the U.S. to partner with 120 different Chinese institutions in the Sino-American Dual-Degree Program, an international educational exchange through which UW-Eau Claire has agreements with six universities in China and one in Taiwan.

Dual-degree programs like the one bringing in the current class from Chengshu allow international students to earn degrees from UW-Eau Claire and their home university. Students spend their first and last years at their home campus, and their middle two years at UW-Eau Claire.

“This dual-degree combination provides the Chinese students with the best of both worlds — they finish their degree in China and enter the job market there with the benefit of a U.S. education and market perspective,” said Colleen Marchwick, the director of the Center of International Education at UW-Eau Claire.

Opportunity knocks

How did UW-Eau Claire become one of such a relatively small number of universities to partner in the Sino-American Dual-Degree Program?

A key is that UW-Eau Claire has staff and faculty willing to engage in the long and complicated process of articulating the curricula that allow for the dual degrees, according to Marchwick. All degree requirements for a Blugold degree must be met by these candidates, so the lengthy process of comparing courses and honoring credit transfers between the two schools is a challenge. In addition to coursework, all other graduation requirements, such as service-learning, must also be met by dual-degree international students.

“Often with these agreements, the department chairs and deans are working with admissions and CIE staff for 12 to 18 months to articulate curricula between the programs. There is a lot of work that goes into the process before the agreement is signed and the students come to campus, and we are one of the schools consistently willing to put in that work. The support of the chancellor and provost is critical to the success of these agreements,” Marchwick added.

In 2016, Chancellor James Schmidt traveled to China and signed agreements to expand the partnership with CIT in the area of computer science and finance.

This January the campus welcomed 54 finance and computer science students from CIT. Beginning in 2020, UW-Eau Claire will welcome CIT dual-degree students in materials science and engineering, thanks to yet another program expansion Schmidt created during his fall 2018 return to Changshu.

Life as a Blugold

In terms of the student experience while attending UW-Eau Claire, Lee Chepil, interim advisor for international study in CIE, sets up programming and events intended to assist the Chinese students in becoming acclimated to both the campus and the community.

“The English language skills vary quite a bit; this class of 54 has roughly 30 enrolled in the Intensive English Program,” Chepil said. The IEP at UW-Eau Claire focuses on academic and social use of English and offers courses in study skills, leadership and team-building skills.

CIT finance student Yifeng Zhu, despite having more English ability than others, feels that the language barrier is the biggest hurdle to really being able to “feel like a Blugold.”

“The most challenging thing for me is the language because we need it to truly connect with people here,” Zhu said. “If students are interested in coming, they must learn English really well.”

All students have a host family in the city, and CIE pairs each student with a campus buddy. This buddy may be a student in their major, or may be another international student, and they meet weekly to practice English speaking and socialize.

“In January we held a Chinese New Year celebration shortly after they arrived, and throughout the semester there are dates for more casual dinners and gatherings,” said Chepil, who also provides opportunities for the CIT students to hear from international faculty about a variety of topics.

Faculty exchange

The dual-degree agreements also allow for Blugold and CIT faculty to participate in an exchange between the universities, teaching and/or conducting research. These faculty exchanges help further institutional goals of bringing more global perspectives and international experiences to this campus.

Seven faculty participated during the 2018-19 academic year in the subject areas of computer science, finance, materials science and engineering, and English language and literature. Four Blugold faculty will be teaching at CIT in the summer of 2019 — Jack Tan and Heidi Tessmer from computer science, Ying Ma from materials science and engineering, and Ami Christensen from languages.

Programs like the agreement with CIT help to continue and advance a nearly 70-year tradition at UW-Eau Claire, which Marchwick puts into historical context.

“It really began after World War II, when this campus joined a global commitment to international student mobility designed to build cultural, political and economic bridges between countries,” she said. “The CIT agreement is a great example of how we continue to build on this tradition of public diplomacy, with the hope that greater understanding of one another will bring greater peace.”