Ole Miss

Published on August 31st, 2020 | by TLV News


University Keeps Producing ‘Global Citizens’ Despite COVID-19

Taiwanese partnership helps equip tomorrow’s military officers with language skills, cultural knowledge

A masked-up mission to Taiwan earlier this year, just before COVID-19 shut down much of the world, has allowed the University of Mississippi to continue offering opportunities for students to learn Chinese and soak up regional culture through an exchange with an international university in Asia.

Despite the pandemic’s disruptions to travel and everyday life, this partnership is thriving, due in part to strong Asian connections forged by the UM Department of Modern Languages and Office of Study Abroad.

At the end of February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns in the United States and restricted international travel, a delegation of UM officials went to Taiwan. They wanted to set up this year’s programming for Project GO, a government-funded program to train Reserve Officer Training Corps students and offer them critical language education, study abroad opportunities and intercultural dialogue opportunities.

Project GO programs focus on the languages and countries of the Middle East, Asia, Central Asia, Africa and South America.

Blair McElroy (left), senior international officer and director of study abroad at the University of Mississippi; Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; and Provost Noel Wilkin fly to Taiwan as part of a delegation of UM officials working on a partnership with Chung Cheng University Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Blair McElroy

“The Department of Modern Languages is proud of our affiliations with institutions all over the world, not least of which is our relationship with Chung Cheng University through Project GO,” said Daniel E. O’Sullivan, the department’s chair.

“I had the good fortune of visiting CCU earlier this year, and I was deeply impressed with their faculty’s commitment to developing these young cadets’ Chinese-language proficiency and sense of global citizenship.”

To establish a higher education partnership that crosses oceans and national borders, university leaders often have to navigate complicated political and foreign policy issues. The shift across international relations since Project Go was established 12 years ago had Ole Miss officials in recent years looking outside mainland China’s borders for places to continue Project Go. Taiwan fit the bill. 

An Ole Miss delegation that included Blair McElroy, senior international officer and director of study abroad, Provost Noel Wilkin and other academic officials met with leaders from Chung Cheng University, which is in Chiayai, a city in southern Taiwan. They hashed out a partnership to teach Chinese to 17 ROTC students from around the country over the summer. 

UM was among the original grantees for Project GO 12 years ago and has hosted a program, with federal funding, in all but one of the years since, said Donald L. Dyer, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs in the College of Liberal Arts.

Students walk around Chung Cheng University, which is in Chiayai, a city in southern Taiwan. Photo by Blair McElroy

“We typically send up to 20 ROTC cadets from across the country to China or Taiwan for Chinese language training, which we provide in collaboration with a host university,” Dyer said, noting the shift to online instruction this summer.

“Faculty at CCU are teaching 17 students this summer. We are extremely pleased with and excited about our collaboration with CCU, and we look forward to additional work together in the future.”

During the Taiwan visit, the days were long but productive as the delegation managed program details and got resources in place for students, who were to arrive in a few short months.

“All of the planning and discussion was valuable and productive,” McElroy said. “We met the summer instructors, discussed curriculum and expectations, visited the housing space and met local students.

“We were really happy with the outcomes of the site visit, but then we got back and within three weeks had canceled all summer study abroad programs.”

With a productive trip just completed and many plans for the program arranged to send students to Taiwan, Ole Miss leaders quickly changed their focus to an online plan when they learned there was nothing in the program’s protocols to prevent it. UM and other Project GO universities began trying to set up partnerships with universities in Taiwan to teach Chinese.

Henrietta Yang, associate professor of Chinese and co-director of the Chinese Flagship Language Program at Ole Miss, has been instrumental in the establishment and oversight of Project GO programs. A native of Taiwan with lots of local contacts, she began leveraging them to make the adjustment from an in-person program in Taiwan to an online program. 

Because there is a 13-hour time difference, she had to find teachers who can handle that and give cadets the best possible experience.

The class uses a Chinese flagship program model, and besides language skills, cadets learn about the region during their classes with Chung Cheng University professors and Project GO instructors. Cultural information about the area augments the language skills in the curriculum, Yang said.

“I still wanted to give cadets an opportunity to learn about Taiwan,” she said. “There are different topics every day. They’re talking about the subway system in Taiwan now, and last Thursday was the Dragon Boat Festivals, which is one of the largest in the country.”

While the Ole Miss program is going smoothly, some other U.S. universities haven’t been able to begin teaching students due to complicated politics and bureaucratic snares. UM, using its connections from the Office of Study Abroad and Yang’s contacts, was able to determine quickly what would be expected of the program and has stuck to its plan. That has made a difference, Yang said.

The university’s Project GO influence has been growing for years and UM has been asked by the National Security Education Program, which funds the program, to increase its capacity for more students next year to meet an increased demand, Yang said. None of the ROTC students in this year’s class are from Ole Miss, coming instead from universities around the country.

Jesse Paxton, a tutor with UM’s Project GO program, had planned to meet the students when they arrived in Taiwan, but COVID-19 prevented that. He’s adjusted to the new realities of teaching, he said.

In Project GO, there are two levels of classes. The intro level students learn how to order food and some other basic language proficiencies, while higher-level courses cover topics such as transportation, riding a subway, working part time and putting those skills in practice. 

“When learning Chinese, everyone faces challenges,” Paxton said. “Some struggle with their reading skills, but we’ve definitely had a good amount of time to see where the students are. They’re doing well.”

The online format has potential for the future, he said. 

“It’s definitely something we need to be working on with the students very much,” Paxton said. “I personally like working on these types of programs and helping these students work on their abilities and helping them to develop their interests.”

The field of international education has been widely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, McElroy said. From spring study abroad students being recalled and summer study abroad programs being cancelled to travel restrictions both to and from the United States being enforced, student mobility in general has changed and slowed.

A firm believer in the mission of her office, McElroy believes study abroad will rebound from COVID-19 and thrive again.

“I do think that traditional study abroad experiences will return and will even be stronger than before,” McElroy said. “One thing the pandemic has shown us is how interconnected the world is.

“More than ever, the world needs people who understand globalization and topics such as pandemics, health care access and systems, international trade, climate change, global supply chains, food and water security, and sustainability in our local and global communities, as well as inequalities among and within countries, immigration and the criminal justice system.”

Students can study all these topics by studying abroad, but also by participating in global experiences in Ole Miss classrooms, she said. 

“While not everyone can participate in a traditional study abroad experience, we are pleased at the success of the Project GO virtual Chinese program because these types of programs have the potential to bring global learning to students who might not be able to participate in study abroad,” McElroy said. 

But even when things rebound, Study Abroad likely will continue to use online learning. The format has proven very useful and convenient. 

“We are continuing to offer virtual internships and language programs in the fall semester, along with a small number of outgoing study abroad participants,” McElroy said.

“There will always be value in communicating with people from different cultures and learning from them. Current generations have grown up connected to a global community, and there won’t be a change in the desire to engage further with people around the world.

“Our international connections and programs may look different right now, but we will weather this storm and come out stronger.”

By Michael Newsom

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The Local Voice is a bimonthly entertainment guide and newspaper based in Oxford, Mississippi, covering and distributed in North Central Mississippi, including Oxford, Ole Miss, Taylor, Abbeville, Water Valley, Lafayette County, Yalobusha County, and parts of Panola County, Marshall County, and Tupelo . The Local Voice is distributed free to over 255 locations in North Mississippi and also available as a full color PDF download worldwide on the internet.

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