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Two Americans in China

New Ulm-based professors teach at Chinese university; come back with stories

May 31, 2009
By Kremena Spengler — Staff Writer

NEW ULM - One thing Judy Kuster unwittingly accomplished in China was bring brisk business to a small plumber's shop.

Kuster, a communication disorders professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, spent six weeks in that country this spring, teaching at the United International College in Zhuhai, Guangdong.

She did so along with her husband Tom, a professor at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato who teaches debate.

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Tom and Judy Kuster, who live in New Ulm and teach in colleges in Mankato, taught in a Chinese university for six weeks earlier this spring. Tom, a professor at Bethany Lutheran College, taught debate, and Judy, a professor at Minnesota State University, taught accent modification. The Kusters (center) attend an appreciation dinner with Chinese students.

Each taught in their respective field.

Back to the plumber's shop:

Judy taught a course in accent modification. To help students hear themselves as they pronounced the English words, she invented a simple curved device from a piece of pipe and an elbow she bought at a plumber's shop. Students would speak into the pipe, and the device would channel the sound into their ear, to help modify their accent.

Fact Box

Bethany fosters exchange in global economy

"Bethany's initial exchange agreement with United International College in Zhuhai, China, in 2007 was the direct result of a concerted effort to expand our connections with China," says Kathy Bruss, Study Abroad Coordinator, Bethany Lutheran College. "The speed and the degree to which China has become such an economic force in the economy of the world have left higher education lagging behind in preparing its students for those interactions. It wasn't a coincidence that our first professor to teach at UIC last spring was a business professor, Dr. Janet Moldstad. Two of the three students who studied there during the same semester were business majors. Since the curriculum at UIC is taught in English, it makes for easy exchanges between our two campuses. Currently we have four students planning to study at UIC in the spring of 2010.

"We were extremely pleased that Dr. Tom Kuster and his wife Judy were able to spend six weeks teaching at UIC this spring," said Bruss. "Having a professor actively teaching on campus helps to promote collaborative projects between our two schools and it helps the students to become interested in studying at that professor's school. It also enriches the classroom lectures with new perspectives when the professor returns home. Communications is an ideal department for the professor to have had significant experiences abroad, but really the experience enriches any field.

"This past fall semester Bethany had five UIC exchange students. Study abroad students are unique in the sense that they are already seasoned college students and are highly motivated to take advantage of the opportunities of being abroad for a semester. Each student was paired with an American student mentor who helped to integrate the students quickly and maximize the interactions of our American students with them. Therefore even students who are unable to study abroad are enriched.

"One of the best outcomes of our exchange agreement is something that I refer to as reciprocal kindness," said Bruss. "The Kusters benefited from this when the parents of a UIC student who had studied at Bethany in the fall invited them into their home and took them to dinner. How often does that happen when you are only in a country for six weeks! The reciprocal kindness factor helps to speed up the process of intercultural understanding, which after all, is our primary goal."

A Chinese colleague loved the device - and commissioned the plumber to make another 200!

"I left a legacy in China," Judy laughs.

---

Tom and Judy's teaching stint was part of an exchange program for students and teachers sponsored by the Private College Council, of which Tom's school, Bethany Lutheran College, is part.

The United International College is a new, experimental school - a four-year liberal arts college in a land of mostly trade and tech schools. Its first class graduates this year.

Liberal arts colleges went away in China during the 1950s Cultural Revolution but are now being revived.

The United International College is unique, in that all instruction takes place in English.

It boasts a very diverse international faculty - with professors from New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland, India, Germany, Norway, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, Iran, Korea, and states such as Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota...

The school was recently upgraded to a higher tier in the Chinese college rating system - second to the top, the Kusters believe. That means its students - whose admittance is based on a competitive exam - are very bright.

The school has 5,000 students.

Technology at the college is "wonderful," with Internet access and up-to-date projection equipment, the Kusters said.

---

Judy taught in a club format. Clubs - a co-curricular alternative to regular courses - are popular in Chinese universities - and fit in with the limited length of Judy's stay.

About 120 students joined Judy's two clubs. The clubs met twice a week for an hour. In addition, Judy worked with several students in smaller groups; and held 32 one-and-a-half-hour individual sessions.

"I was amazed at how many were very eager to join my clubs; how studious they were; how hard they worked; and the kind of progress they made," Judy said.

Tom, the source of the primary connection to the Chinese school, taught his specialty area, debate. He coached 62 students.

The course culminated in a two-night tournament - the first ever English debate - with 10-20 debates on 10 topics watched by audiences of 150-200 people.

The students were were respectful, appreciative and easy to connect with, say the Kusters.

Teachers in China, the Kusters observed, appear to receive "automatic respect" from students - respect seems to be the "default mode."

"You have to work to keep it, and you can lose it, but you have it to start with," said Judy.

Something else also impressed her about students - the young women appeared to wear very little make-up.

Their faces shone with "inner beauty," she said.

Many students cried when the Kusters were leaving, and asked when they would come back.

The two professors left China "loaded with gifts."

"This exchange of politeness, gratitude and respect is one of the most important aspects of the [inter-college exchange] agreement," said Tom.

---

Zhuhai is in the province of Guangdong in the Pearl River Delta, on the South China Sea. It is a ferry ride from Hong Kong and a bus (or boat) ride from Macau (a peninsula).

Originally a collection of several fishing villages, Zhuhai grew into a metropolis of several million people after being declared an economic development zone.

Yet its neighborhoods retain some of their small-town feel, the Kusters said.

Zhuhai is culturally different - in a sense more conservative and less "westernized" - than either formerly Portuguese Macau or formerly British-ruled Hong Kong.

---

The Kusters lived in a three-bedroom condominium - "more room than we needed" - in a gated community in Zhuhai.

Having formed warm relationships with students and their families, the Kusters experienced some unique cultural exposure.

Students shared local food specialties from care packages (duck gizzards was one), for example.

One family - of a student who spent a year at Bethany - took the Kusters out to a unique restaurant. The restaurant's "backyard" looked like a street lined with the stalls of various seafood vendors. Octopus, lobster, crab and many other fish species were literally alive for patrons to choose from.

The food that patrons chose was then prepared inside to their specifications. Some of the food was just a little "exotic" to the unexperienced palate, chuckles Judy.

(A restaurant called "Mr. Pizza," as well as the ever popular KFC, provided a link to the more familiar.)

---

The Kusters had already made a previous trip to China; so they did less of "the tourist thing."

Instead, they worked "very, very hard" during the six weeks, often staying at school till 8 or 9 p.m. to prepare for the next day.

The experience was "intense" - but then, they had put the rest of their lives "on hold," so they could do it, says Judy.

Still, the Kusters brought back a collection of cultural observations.

Judy learned to be careful with compliments - after admiring a lady's shawl on a boat ride, she got presented with it, for example. In return, she gave the woman's young son a handful of U.S. coins for his collection. "People would give you the shirt off their back," said Judy.

Tom was amazed at how inexpensive some things were.

The pair would order two or three dishes to share in a restaurant and take enough home for supper, all for $5-$6.

---

The Chinese experience gave both Tom and Judy intriguing insights into their own teaching.

One was the clearer realization that they cannot make assumptions about foreign language - or, indeed, any - learners. While very competent in the more formal aspects of the English language, some of their students would have a difficulty expressing everyday concepts - the word "comb" might be unfamiliar, for example.

Students might have trouble grasping a meaning - yet not too eager to ask questions.

"You have to make it easy for them to ask - and then they would," said Judy.

Tom relied a lot on paraphrasing material, visual projection, PowerPoint presentations, diagrams and hand-outs - presenting the same information in a variety of formats.

He says he is more aware now that some of the same observations may be valid of his students stateside. "One simply cannot make assumptions."

"It is very important to be flexible - be ready for whatever comes," notes Judy.

 
 

 

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