This year’s focus at Westminster College’s Sixth Annual Symposium was global technology, and the Skype event saw Coulter Lecture Hall filled to capacity. It’s intended to be a friendly dialogue between the faculty, students and leaders of Westminster College and Beijing Union University as the two institutions pledge to work more closely together in the future. However, it soon becomes clear that a cultural exchange is playing out before our eyes and underscoring the differences between our cultures.
Dr. Edward Mirielli, chair of the computer services department, has his students occupy a conspicuous table front and center in the auditorium while the faculty sits on the first row. By contrast, Beijing Union University’s faculty sit in a semicircle in front of a camera to illustrate their eminence in the social hierarchy with students seated behind them.
Westminster College is a small liberal arts college of roughly 1,200 students with an emphasis on teaching; BU University is a large research-level college of approximately 30,000 students. Its international students represent nearly 17 percent of the student population, and they tend to take on high-performing students. Jefferson explains: “We are the fourth most diverse institution in the United States for a small liberal arts college. We have 170 international from 69 different countries, and we pride ourselves in recruiting a diverse international student body.”
At one point a BUU faculty member generously offers a scholarship for American students, and another faculty member tells Westminster students, “You will make history!” Thunderous applause erupts on both sides of the world. Westminster officials pledge to work with BUU to create opportunities for students from both countries to study abroad. Jefferson promises to host BUU students as early as February 2012.
Dr. Rob Havers, director of the Churchill Institute and co-director of the Westminster Symposium, gives opening remarks and explains the order of events for the evening. Each side introduces its faculty, but the quality of the audio makes it difficult to hear the names of the Beijing contingent. Representing the Westminster faculty is Dr. Carolyn Perry, vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty; Dr. Scott Lowell, vice president and chief information officer; Dr. Bob Hanson, executive director for the Emerson Center for Leadership and Service; Dr. Kurt Jefferson, director of the Center for Engaging the World; Dr. Ed Mirielli, chair of computer services; Professor Henry Landry, lecturer in Asian studies; and Dr. Barney Forsythe, president of Westminster College.
Perry discusses the tradition of a liberal arts education and the mission of Westminster. “Westminster is a small liberal arts college in the very center of the United States,” she says. “We are small by design. And the reason for that is we want every one of our students to have a high impact experience that not only trains them well in the liberal arts but teaches them to be leaders.”
Westminster students are asked specifically how much homework they are assigned, and Sean Roberts, an international student from South Africa, fields the question by stating the traditional wisdom that for every one hour of classroom work, he studies two or three hours. Later, Gwen Miller, another student on the panel, asks what BUU students do in their spare time. Wry grins from the faculty indicate that either students do not have spare time or it isn’t a question that could be answered because it implies students are not being productive.
In China acceptance into college hinges on one massive examination. If a student doesn’t do well on the examination, his or her chances of getting into the ideal college are extremely unlikely. By contrast, in the U.S. students who have great recommendations and demonstrate leadership and involvement in extracurricular activities are referred to as “well-rounded,” which may outweigh grades or S.A.T. scores.
The translator at BUU on behalf of the president asks two questions: “What classes do you offer in character?” and “What kind of job will your students find after graduation?”
BUU, being a large research facility, notes that for its part, it might use graduate students but wonders how Westminster could give undergraduate students so much responsibility working on community technology needs. It’s an important distinction but one that could be easily explained in that there’s a difference in the U.S. between larger research universities such as the University of Missouri and private teaching colleges. At a larger university, funding and advancement is dependent on the research and publishing of its faculty; at a private college, faculty members are expected to be excellent teachers.
Ultimately, Forsythe steps in and explains Westminster’s mission to shape students who would become leaders of character. He discusses the American tradition of liberal arts education. He emphasizes the position of seeing students as value-driven who relate to the global world compassionately and are moral members of the world around them.
The Chinese education system is very technically oriented, Forsythe admits. “Even though we couldn’t understand each other, we could understand what was going on. It was wonderful. I want to get some students over there.”