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Joint Institute program changes lives, in Ann Arbor, and in Shanghai

Instructor Kwee Yan  teaches Advanced Energy Solutions at the Joint Institute in Shanghai.  

He gives a lecture on the energy density of different fuels that's indistinguishable from a lecture that an engineering student might hear in Ann Arbor. 

"Some people say we are addicted to hydrocarbons, we are addicted to oil.  There are some technical reasons for that," says Kwee Yan, to a classroom of mostly male engineering students, just as in the U.S.

English is the language of instruction here.  That enables U of M students - most of whom don’t speak Chinese - to obtain some of their engineering credits in Shanghai. 

And it enables the Chinese students to perfect their English, arguably the most important foreign language taught in China. 

Joint Institute students Ma Jun and Wajing Chen plan to study in Ann Arbor next year. 

Ma Jun has adopted an English name for the benefit of English-speaking acquaintances, "Martin."

Wajing Chan has not yet decided what English name he might use.  But his friend Ma Jun volunteers that Chen does have a nickname in Chinese, which he happily translates.  "The Emperor of Study!" 

Befitting the nickname, Chen says no matter what, when he gets to Ann Arbor, he will keep up his grade point average.  Ma Jun thinks going to Ann Arbor is an opportunity to study American-style.

"They have party every weekend," says Ma June.  "They still can have a 3.9 or 3.8, yeah, that’s what we really need to learn, to balance, right.  We don’t have that kind of party here."

Nor do they have college football.  Ma Jun says he’s seen Wolverines games online.  In Ann Arbor, he’ll get to see what the fuss is all about, in person.

Zongchang Liu is in Ann Arbor this year.  He’s seen a game, but he’s been a lot more impressed by other parts of American culture. 

Chinese students may have better grades, says Liu, but American students have better teamwork and problem-solving skills.  And he says American students are so independent.  They pursue their intellectual passions in a way that’s rare in China.  Things like the U of M's Solar Car Team. 

Seeing the difference has changed Liu, and changed what he wants for his own life. 

"I feel I can be as confident as them, and I can do something that I really want to, instead of what other people expect me to do," say Liu. 

And with his newfound confidence, Liu is working to start a new program that connects Detroit area businesses that have operations in China with Chinese engineering students.

The hope is the companies may hire the students when they return to China.

This kind of change is one of the most valuable results of spending time immersed in a different culture. 

And it works both ways. Andrew Copp was changed from his time in Shanghai.

"At the end of the day it’s a very humbling experience if you do it right," says Copp.

He says Shanghai was an eye-opener.    The culture of China teaches people to be gracious, accommodating hosts.  Chinese classmates went out of their way to help him with the language barrier.  They took him on tours of the city or out to dinner after big exams.

So when he returned to Ann Arbor, it was almost a reverse culture shock.  He saw a lot of indifference from the American students when it came to their Chinese classmates.

"Here, we’re a little bit more of an independent culture, and so people almost can’t be bothered by things like that.  And it’s really unfortunate, because they are so eager to be a gracious guest, and we need to do a better job providing for them," Copp said.

Copp was so struck by his experience, he took a job as a peer advisor for foreign exchange students in engineering when he returned to Ann Arbor.

And he’s hoping to start a new program, too.

It will match Chinese engineering students with game day buddies to help them figure out that cultural phenomenon at the Big House. 

Joint Institute Dean Jun Ni has some big plans, too.  He hopes to get government approval to expand the program from engineering students to liberal arts and medical students as well.

Inform our coverage: Have you traveled to China? Share your experience.





Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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