Those of us who are parents know that sending your children off to college can be a challenge – perhaps more so for the parents! The challenge is certainly magnified when you send a son or a daughter to another country and culture. As many of you know, we are five years into a program that has brought about 100 Chinese students to the George Fox University undergraduate system. Although we speak frequently with our Chinese students, we have not tried to visit with their parents to understand their perceptions of George Fox and to discover their dreams for their children. This week we are changing that, as Thomas Peng, Fred Gregory (vice president for university engagement), and I are traveling in China to visit with the parents of our students. It is a short trip but one that has already proved meaningful.
Yesterday we found ourselves in Shenzhen, a city across from Hong Kong in southern China that is home to more than 20 million people. We were walking in the downtown area on a Sunday afternoon, and it was difficult to imagine that this city had been built new out of what were rice paddies some 30 years ago. Thousands of people milled about, and the streets were so crowded it was often difficult to walk. As I stumbled through the crowds I thought it might be difficult to really “be known” here in any meaningful way. How would our concepts of giftedness and calling be understood amidst this culture? Why would students from a culture and experience so radically different from our own chose George Fox as the place to gain their college degree?
When you have meetings with people in China, they are often around a meal. They have a great tradition of gathering around good food and conversation – and the gatherings often last for hours. For the Chinese culture, trust is absolutely essential and trust is built by spending time with each other. We are now in the middle of our trip and enjoyed three dinners and conversations with the parents of 14 students. What I have learned has been a surprise to me – the hopes and dreams of Chinese parents are not substantially different from my own.
I’m not sure what I should have expected to hear from parents in China. The culture here is much more hierarchical than the United States, and it is very unusual for a college president to take the time to talk to the parents of students. In fact, one father mentioned that it was rare that a Chinese president would even spend time talking with students. Chinese educational culture is radically different from our own.
Each evening we begin with a similar approach. I convey to the gathered parents that we have come to dialogue with them and to hear their impressions of the George Fox University experience. On the first night in Guangzhou, one father expressed great relief following my opening remarks as he noted that the only reason a president would come to visit with him would be that his daughter had committed some great offense against the college! We laughed together as we thought about our different cultural perceptions of presidential visits, and I assured him that his daughter had done well and we were there only to further our relationship. From that point on our conversations went long and well.
Each parent always began their comments with notes of thanks and appreciation. The parents had actually few concerns about what was happening at George Fox. We learned that they speak frequently with their children through Skype and other forms of technology. Only one parent had actually visited George Fox. They did note that their students had talked about the lack of quality in American food and their general unhappiness with the food service (a complaint often expressed by American students for different reasons). They, of course, want more food that reflects Asian culture and reminds them of home. They find the English language a significant challenge, but the parents believe that it is important for them to know English for their future. The lack of public transportation in Newberg was also a noted concern.
In contrast to the few concerns, parents said they liked the safety of a small town, the engagement of the professors in learning, and the interest the university has taken in their children. Perhaps most importantly, the parents and students talked extensively about the importance of host families, who have played a significant role in helping the Chinese students understand American culture and develop significant relationships with American families. I discovered that one of the desires of the parents is that their children get to know America, understand its values, and establish relationships with Americans. The host family work at George Fox certainly tries to accomplish these goals.
And, like American parents, Chinese parents want their students to do well, to be safe, and to develop meaningful relationships while they are in college.
I enjoyed most listening to the visions and dreams that our Chinese parents have for their children. Here are a few examples of the types of comments they made:
“It has always been a dream of our son to go the United States. Thus, just for him to go to George Fox has fulfilled part of his dream. He is unsure of what he wants to do, and we want him to ‘find’ himself. It would be our greatest hope that George Fox might help him find his place in life and give him a great goal beyond just making money.”
“We know that education is important in our world, and we have sacrificed greatly so she can go to George Fox University. It would be our hope that she gain a quality education and that George Fox might contribute to her life and understanding of future role in the world.”
These comments were reflective of most of what we heard from parents. As I sat and listened and wrote down what I heard, the words “be known” kept coming to my mind. All parents, whether Chinese, American, or from other cultures, have great hopes that a college will “know” their children in intimate ways and help them find their place in life. At George Fox, that cause is at the core of who we are. We are here because we believe that each student has been created uniquely by God, and it is our purpose to help them develop well and find their calling. I was happy to tell the parents that their dreams are also our dreams.