Fort Hays Gives Students in China a Foothold to Success

Fellows Fall 2005

By Alan Bjerga

June 03, 2009

Students at SIAS International University

Students at SIAS International University

XINZHENG CITY, China -- Layla Wang's parents buy fruit from the countryside and resell it in this city of about 600,000 people in Henan province -- small by Chinese standards.

But Wang, who goes by her chosen Western name, dreams of big-city life as a lawyer.

She plans to get there with the help of a degree from Fort Hays State University in Kansas, a campus she has never visited but which will give her an edge in China's globalizing work force.

"I think the education I'm getting is unique," said Wang, a 21-year-old junior at SIAS International University, which, through distance learning, offers degree programs with Fort Hays and is the only American-owned college in China.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius celebrated the SIAS-Fort Hays relationship Thursday, praising the partnership forged by a California entrepreneur and a Kansas academic as an innovation that helps Kansas and serves the globe.

"You're well prepared to knock down any door you want," she told the students, who have to meet tough English-language standards to be admitted, then must complete courses taught by professors in Chinese and Kansas classrooms.

The door to educating Wang and the more than 2,000 Chinese students enrolled at Fort Hays State through SIAS and three other partner universities across China began to open in the late 1990s.

Fort Hays' president, Ed Hammond, was looking for ways to sustain and grow the western Kansas college.

Hammond thought an answer might lie in distance learning -- teaching courses digitally to students off-campus. But at most, he estimated, Kansas could bring about 2,000 students to such a program. He really needed 5,000 to pay for and sustain a distance learning university.

Enter Shawn Chen, a China native and California businessman with ties to the Chinese government.

The founder of SIAS International University as well SIAS Group, which manages businesses in the United States and China, he was looking for a four-year American college that would offer courses for credit internationally.

The two interests met, and in the fall of 2000, Fort Hays started educating students in China, with professors in Kansas teaching Chinese students, in English, from half a world away.

Today about 10 percent of SIAS students are also earning a Fort Hays State degree. They've helped push the university's total enrollment this fall to just over 9,000.

The focus is on business education, although American culture is also a major part of the curriculum -- marketing principles and American cinema are both covered during freshman year, for example.

China's rapid economic ascent is creating an insatiable appetite for trained managers with global expertise, a need China is hard-pressed to fill on its own. Its university system is based on rigid course work and tests that shut out most high school graduates and don't always reward the students with the greatest creativity or potential.

Meanwhile, Chen said, Chinese parents are desperate for their children to succeed. Children are expected to support their parents in place of pensions or Social Security, and the government's one-child-per-family requirement puts huge pressure on children to succeed financially.

An American college degree through SIAS makes graduates highly employable, for their knowledge of both business and America, he said.

Huifang Sun, a sophomore who goes by Carrie at SIAS, wants to become a translator. She said her education has given her exposure to foreigners she wouldn't have had otherwise, and it's changed her perception of America.

"I thought all the Americans were very rich or very wealthy," she said. "I came to realize that America has rich people and poor people. Not everyone is rich, and not everyone is Christian," she said.

Dean He said he thought the Fort Hays-SIAS partnership program combines the best of American and Chinese education.

"Our education is open-minded," he said. "It includes foreign teachers who encourage us, and Chinese teachers who are trying to learn more about foreigners."

He, a junior, said he hopes to attend graduate school in the United States.

The next step for Fort Hays, Hammond said, is to generate greater overseas exchange of students. Fort Hays is looking at sending more of its students overseas as part of an international studies minor, he said.

The program also indirectly benefits the city of Hays and other Kansas students, he said. Tuition income from Chinese students has helped keep in-state tuition down at Fort Hays, he said, and enrollment has brought new instructors to Hays.

The program has also created new enthusiasm for Kansas across the Pacific. Wang, Sun and He all said they want to better understand the place that's giving them opportunity in a world of wrenching change.

"I'd like to visit Kansas," Wang said. "I think it's very safe there."