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June 4, 2016

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Drawing lessons long after graduation

WITH Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become the first female president of the US, my studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts have taken on a new prominence among curious Chinese friends and relatives. You see, Clinton and I are both alumni of the same women’s liberal arts college, though obviously at different times.

My father used to find it difficult to explain to his friends exactly where his daughter went to school. A women’s liberal arts college was an oddity to people used to the big names like Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

It helped him a bit to explain that the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once taught at Wellesley, and Soong Mei-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, studied there.

Today, many of his friends and mine are asking more serious questions about Wellesley, women’s colleges and liberal arts colleges. Should we send our daughters there?

My Chinese “tiger mom” was happy for me to go to Wellesley because she thought it was an “elite bridal school.” How wrong she was! Indeed, she later came to believe that my education at Wellesley actually placed me out of the grasp of many potential Chinese suitors.

My friends have begun forwarding me many articles widely circulating on WeChat and Weibo about my alma mater. It seems I am being coerced into sharing my experience, not only at Wellesley but also in a women’s college and a liberal arts college. It’s still a mysterious realm to many Chinese students and parents.

In fact, more for parents than students. Chinese parents are often the driving force behind the entire decision-making process about education for their children. It begins in pre-school and weaves its way through to university exams.

For those wanting their children to study abroad, careful attention is paid to grades, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and sports - all elements that good American schools love to see in a candidate.

The end result is an excellent standard application, received from hundreds or even thousands of Chinese students. It’s hard for US educators to sift through to find personality or individuality. And many times, on the Chinese side, no one has much idea about the nature of the institutions where applications have been sent.

“Isn’t college a level under university? Does that mean it’s not as good? What sort of degree do you get?”

In 2002, I was accepted by several American universities, including some in the Ivy League. Most people were puzzled when I chose Wellesley.

Explaining the US education system can be complicated because it differs in many respects from the system in China. I have reminded people that the undergraduate program at Harvard University is actually called Harvard College.

Wellesley is a liberal arts college, which means it puts emphasis on undergraduate study in liberal arts and sciences. It seeks to graduate well-rounded students exposed to a wide range of subjects.

Compared with universities that are strong in research and emphasize graduate study, liberal arts colleges devote their best resources to undergraduate students because there is no graduate program.

Parents who look at the ratings of the best universities in the US won’t find Wellesley in the general ranking. That’s because liberal arts colleges are ranked separately, and Wellesley was ranked the fourth best in the list compiled by US News & World Report in 2016. I doubt it will ever be at the top of the list, since one of the criteria is diversity. Wellesley has zero gender diversity. There are no male students.

Some rankings, such as one compiled by Forbes magazine, lump all schools together. Last year, Wellesley was 26th on the list.

Like most other Chinese studying abroad, I figured the experience would boost my job opportunities. It did, sort of. But according to most of the people who interviewed me back then, including my bosses at Shanghai Daily, what impressed them most was my sense of humor, my fearless answers and the fact that I could think for myself.

Apart from academic credentials, those are the virtues I learned in my four years at a US woman’s liberal arts college.

Wellesley is not only the alma mater to the former first ladies of the US, but also boasts graduates such as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Pamela Melroy, the second woman to command a space shuttle mission, and the celebrated Chinese writer Bing Xin.

When Bing Xin studied at Wellesley in the 1920s, she renamed Lake Waban near the campus as Weibing Hu, meaning “the lake to comfort Bing.” She went on to make the lake famous in her widely read essay “To Little Readers.”

After growing up reading her essays, I was thrilled to see the legendary lake for the first time when I arrived at Wellesley in August 2002. Coming from a local high school in Shanghai, the campus opened a whole new world for me.

After the Chinese education system, I had a lot to learn.  Why did my professor give me an “A” on a paper I wrote when he didn’t agree with my conclusions? Why did my mathematics class on game theory involve playing mahjong? I didn’t even know how to play it!

 “She was always naughty, but she really went wild at Wellesley,” my mother used to say of my experience in the US.

For the first few weeks, I kept asking professors, schoolmates, residence directors and administrators whether it was permissible for me to do this or that. I quickly came to realize that nothing is impossible.

“But were you able to find a boyfriend?” Many prospective students, and, more so, their moms, often ask me that question. Some worry that an all-female environment will spawn cat fights, like those seen on “Top Model.”

I can answer only that I never lacked for male suitors. At the same time, I made some lasting friendships with women.

I can’t honestly say that my experience would suit all Chinese women. But that could be said of all experiences in life. What fits one person so neatly may be a nightmare for someone else. But a women’s liberal arts college, when it doesn’t click with someone, is an experience made of gold. 


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