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June 24, 2013

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Home » Opinion » Chinese Views

Value of a liberal arts education goes far beyond a 'gilded' diploma

THE Wellesley College and Peking University Partnership was launched this month with a remarkable 10-day academic program involving 20 female students from Peking University and 20 students from Wellesley, a distinguished American women's college.

They formed groups, each with students from both schools, to study, discuss and present pressing current issues ranging from local transportation networks to international conflicts and global warming.

I was so surprised that Wellesley girls had so many questions. Many Peking University students said the same thing - so many questions - when I asked how they felt about the program.

Encouraged by the atmosphere and called by the professors, Chinese students started raising questions as well, frequently beginning, "I know this is a silly question ..." Wellesley economics professor Joseph Joyce, who led the academic program, replied, "Don't ever say that. There is no silly question."

I looked at the sparks in the young women's eyes, as if I was looking at myself 10 years ago when I was a freshman at Wellesley College. That's when I first heard the term "liberal arts education" and when I first realized it was okay to ask a question.

I had said the same thing like "This is a silly question, but ..." in the economics class taught by professor Joyce. It was the first time I had raised a question in class, probably two weeks after the semester began, and he said the same thing to me, "Don't ever say that."

My childhood hero was the prolific American inventor Thomas Edison.

My father, quite an atypical Chinese parent, told me Edison was a child with a million questions, and so I also grew up a curious child - until I started primary school.

I have had many splendid Chinese teachers who helped me academically, but none of them really encouraged me to be curious, probably because grades were most important and we just could risk wasting time on unnecessary questions.

Sharp contrasts

My elementary school teacher said, "You have too many questions." My middle school teacher asked me to raise questions after class so I wouldn't "bother" my classmates.

In his office, he then told me, "These questions will never be in the tests, so you don't really need to know."

And I can't remember how many times and how many teachers told me, "That's an unnecessary question."

So I stopped asking questions, unless they were about something likely to turn up in a final exam.

After always being called "too idealistic" by all my Chinese teachers, I finally became quite pragmatic.

In the Wellesley-Peking University program, it wasn't always easy for Chinese girls to be in the same small group teams with Wellesley girls.

That's what many of the Peking University students told me about the intensely intellectual 10-day program.

We (Peking U girls) want to get the problems solved and we care about practical implementation, but they (the Wellesley girls) love the process of brainstorming and they seem to generate ideas forever - that's what I was told.

It takes both to get things done.

I am often asked by younger Chinese friends and their parents how I got into an American university. What should I write in my application? What should I do in an American university that will make my resume look better to a future employer?

I have never heard the question I most wanted to hear: How do I get the best and the most out of American college education.

When I went to Wellesley in 2002, I was the only student from a Chinese mainland high school and there were only a dozen undergraduates from the mainland in the whole Boston area. It was more common for Chinese to go there for a master's degree.

Today, many thousands of Chinese students apply to American undergraduate institutions every year.

They are fortunate to have a easier path than we did 10 years ago, but they also face a much more competitive pool and a fierce job market both in America and China when they graduate.

An American university degree doesn't add the same luster to their resume that it did to ours 10 years go - then it was like solid gold, especially in talent-packed cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Essence of education

But I keep running into returning Chinese students who have essentially attended a Chinese university in the United States.

Many of their classmates were Chinese, their friends were Chinese, some of their professors were Chinese and on top of all that, they worked hard to get good grades without participating much in other activities. And there was no dramatic change in their way of thinking or view of the world.

I keep running into employers who tell me, "My Chinese employee from an American university looks no different from any other Chinese graduate from China." I think that's because many top Chinese universities have become more open and liberal than they were in my day. At the same time, many Chinese students who go to American universities don't take advantage of the liberal arts education that broadened my perspectives, helped me think and made me different. The liberal arts education was more important than my degree itself.

That's a pity.

Yao Minji attended Wellesley College from 2002 to 2006.


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