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Double-Strength Bridge
A U.S. university befriended Chinese students affected by the 2008 Wenchuan quake and a decade later, the bond is stronger
By Yu Shujun & Zhao Wei  ·  2019-08-02  ·   Source: NO. 32 AUGUST 8, 2019
Students from quake-hit Sichuan Province in southwest China take a keepsake photo after finishing a one-year program at the State University of New York at Farmingdale on May 15, 2009 (COURTESY OF WANG SIDI)

Wang Sidi's world turned upside down in 2008 when an 8-magnitude earthquake devastated her home province Sichuan in southwest China, killing nearly 70,000 people. Her father, aunt and four other relatives were among the victims.

"I was battered by the loss and wanted to leave my hometown to move away from the pain," Wang told Beijing Review on the 10th anniversary of a unique educational cooperation program between China and the U.S. to help heal the wounds of some of the worst-affected young survivors.

While struggling with her grief, Wang, a student of Southwest Jiaotong University, heard about a program that was selecting 150 students from Sichuan to study at the State University of New York (SUNY) for a year on scholarship. She immediately applied and was accepted.

In August 2008, Wang and the other chosen students set off to New York. For many of them, like Tang Xinglin, who came from the mountainous areas in northwest Sichuan and was then a student at Sichuan Normal University, it was not only their first trip abroad but their first flight as well.

They received a warm welcome, care and help from university authorities, fellow students and the local community on the 22 campuses of SUNY during their nine-month stay.

Ten years have passed since then and the students and those who initiated or were involved in the program have moved to different places or projects. But they will all reunite in New York later in August.

For many students, the reunion will be a joyous occasion to relive an unforgettable experience. For Wei Lin, the manager of the program, and other students, who have been doing charitable work since then, the program never ended but became a part of their life and work.

For Nicholas Rostow, then University Counsel and Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs of SUNY, the program—a symbol of New York's humanitarian spirit—accomplished more than its purpose, which was to ensure that students affected by the Sichuan earthquake did not suffer educationally. "It created a strategic opportunity for SUNY and China to collaborate on education, research, and, therefore, on mutual understanding to everyone's benefit," Rostow told Beijing Review.

Thomas Moebus, then Vice President of the SUNY Levin Institute, said, "This program is a bridge built between our countries, the two largest and strongest countries on this planet. Anyone with wisdom knows the value of these bridges, and of those who built these bridges."

Call of support

The healing process for the young survivors started with a phone call on June 4, 2008, almost three weeks after the earthquake. Wei, then Director of China Services at the SUNY Levin Institute, received the call from SUNY authorities while she was in China. It was a proposal to have 150 students from the quake-devastated area study at SUNY for a year on full scholarship.

"For an institution like SUNY, [which is] very bureaucratic, to act so swiftly to make such a generous offer to give free education to 150 students from outside the country simply amazed me," Moebus said.

Denis Simon, then Chief Academic Officer at the SUNY Levin Institute, said he proposed to SUNY Chancellor John Ryan that they do something urgent to offer support in the aftermath of the havoc.

"Simply donating money might have had a short-term impact but not a long-term sustained outcome," Simon told Beijing Review. "Our goal was to train a young leaders' group who would return to China to help rebuild the damaged areas."

Once the idea got the support from the SUNY Board of Trustees, the question then became feasibility, said Rostow. Within SUNY, there were pockets of anxiety and misgiving: Some thought it would be impossible to select adequate students or obtain visas for them. Others were afraid SUNY would not be able to find the funds to cover the costs. Still others worried that New Yorkers might question why their university was offering a free year to 150 Chinese students, however much in need, when equally needy New York students did not receive similar offers.

"Each day that passed ate into the 10 weeks between the trustees' decision and the arrival of the students in mid-August 2008, if they were to start the semester on time. I therefore put together a small team of enthusiasts. I simply had no time to deal with misgivings," recalled Rostow, who was asked to take the lead in implementing the idea.

The year 2008 was the year of stock market crash. It proved an inauspicious moment to try to raise money for the program, said Rostow. Even companies with long-established foundations and substantial business interests in and with China were unable to provide financial support. Carl Hayden, Chairman of the Board, was able to raise some important contributions from longtime supporters of higher education in New York.

The program also obtained the state governor's support. "After the earthquake, the New York State Government was identifying China's needs and thinking about how to help. At this time, SUNY made the suggestion and we thought it was a great program," George Hu, then Assistant to the Governor of New York, said. "It was the largest educational support program in New York's history. It had never happened before and has never happened since."

Hu himself reached out to the Chinese American community in New York and got a lot of support for the program including money.

In a few weeks, the small team of only six people turned the seemingly impossible idea into reality. They obtained support from the Chinese Government including a direct approval from then Premier Wen Jiabao, and even got the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu to issue 150 visas in two days.

Two-way exchange

The leading team of the program did not limit their efforts to arranging for the students to be selected, admitted and transported, and pass immigration into the U.S., said Rostow. The whole year, they worked with the campuses to ensure that each student had the best possible experience.

Tang was the only student assigned to the New Paltz campus. "The Center for International Programs was my home at New Paltz. All the faculty members gave me so much support and care," he said. "Within a week, I became part of school life."

Chen Chen, who was from Sichuan University, was assigned to the Cobleskill campus, the smallest of all SUNY campuses. Still it took 18 students, the second largest group in the program. "The cafeteria kitchen opened just for us once each weekend so we could cook Sichuan cuisine, even hot pot," Chen said.

While pursuing their majors, the students also took optional courses like public speaking, which Wang thinks helped a lot in building self-confidence. Besides, they learned skills such as team leadership, communication and time management, which Chen thinks are the basic qualities needed in their careers.

At the same time, the students shared information about Chinese culture and society. Tang co-founded the first Chinese Students' Association at New Paltz. During Chinese traditional festivals like the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, they invited local friends to join in their celebrations. The 19 students at the Farmingdale campus including Wang even presented a performance, Journey to the East, to show Chinese culture to U.S. students and teachers.

"They helped to close a knowledge gap about China that existed for many Americans," Simon said. Many upstate New York communities that are not as international or as cosmopolitan as Manhattan got to better appreciate Chinese culture and overcome many old stereotypes about China, he said.

The presence of the 150 Chinese students also made a strong case for making cross-cultural knowledge and understanding an important part of a liberal arts college education within and across the various SUNY campuses, Simon said, adding, "I thought the students were great ambassadors."

After that, on some campuses like Farmingdale, the focus did shift toward China, Moebus said. Because of Levin's involvement, the institute subsequently developed the first Confucius Institute for Business in the U.S., which continues to this day.

Paying it forward

When they finished their studies in May 2009, the students started a charitable fund with donations from the Chinese American community. In 2010, Haiti and China's Yushu were hit by strong earthquakes and Japan in 2011. The students sent money to the quake-hit regions through the American Red Cross.

They were expected to work for post-quake reconstruction in Sichuan after the program. But as they were mostly still too young, they tried to show their gratitude and contribute in the ways they could.

The Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at SUNY's Buffalo campus is one of the most renowned centers of its kind. Yang Ran, chosen from Southwest Jiaotong University to take part in the program, greatly admired the center. A few years after the program, he applied for Buffalo's Master program, studying ultra high-strength concrete and seismic behavior.

"Because of the earthquake, I came to the U.S. with the SUNY-China 150 program, which led me to study earthquakes in the U.S. I am not entirely clear how to give back to society yet, but I am working on it," Yang said.

Many of the students have participated in charitable activities in Sichuan. Tang became a social worker after graduating in 2010 and worked in an afterschool program for left-behind children, the children of migrant workers who leave them in the care of other relatives while working in cities.

In 2016, Tang and several other students joined the FlowerWatch Program, which is led by Wei and sponsored by UNESCO China Science Office and the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. The program was piloted in 44 elementary schools in Nanjing, teaching children to know more about natural resources and live in harmony with nature. In 2016, Tang and Zhang Yupeng, another SUNY-China 150 student from Southwest Jiaotong University, brought it to a village in Sichuan for the children of the Qiang ethnic group.

Wang now works in a firm in Manhattan, but she has never stopped thinking of doing something for her hometown and for society.

As the 10-year reunion approaches, Wei has some new ideas. She thinks it's time to relaunch the China 150 Fund. But this time, she wants to help U.S. students from poor families who are interested in studying in China and she thinks the SUNY-China 150 students would also like to join in.

(Wang Hairong contributed to the story)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to yushujun@bjreview.com

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