New program, and alumni, assist students unable to return to campuses

Jim Carlson
November 17, 2020

Through no fault of their own, more than 450 Penn State students residing in China and South Korea — including at least seven from the College of Education — were unable to travel to any of the University’s campuses this fall. Instead, Penn State took a campus to them.

The global coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of many U.S. consulates abroad and new visa appointments would have been issued far too late for students without existing student visas to travel to Pennsylvania in time for the late-August start of classes. 

Constructing a customized education abroad program is nothing new, according to Brian Brubaker, director of education abroad, Penn State Global Programs.

But typically it takes nine to 15 months to do so, he said, and it was April. “Many details needed to be considered, among them course structure, load, what courses to offer, price-point, housing, development of co-curricular programming, and alignment of academic policies between the partner and Penn State,” Brubaker said.

That inspired the creation of Penn State First: Shanghai and Penn State First: Seoul, a collaboration between the University and the Council on International Educational Exchange. Students were able to register for two courses delivered remotely and three in residence at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

“The courses being taught on-site are led by local hires from the Shanghai academic community, hired by our partners on the ground,” Brubaker said. “Courses in Seoul are being taught by faculty at Yonsei University, the No. 2-ranked university in that country.”

In addition to the coursework, Penn State alumni in China volunteered to support activities ranging from onsite orientation to movie nights to sports days to even hosting students to visit various companies and businesses.

“I’m grateful about the activity that Penn State and its alumni provide us, like the movie night and the lecture about it,” said prospective secondary education major Jiayu Zhang. “It provides a more specific detail about how our cultures are different and how we could cope with that.”

Brubaker said 415 students are enrolled in Penn State First: Shanghai and 38 in Penn State First: Seoul. More than 10,000 international students from 140 countries and six continents attend Penn State each year.

“For this first iteration of Penn State First (PSF), we worked with the Eberly College of Science to offer several courses very popular with first-year international students (BIOL 110, CHEM 110, MATH 110, etc.) and that meant that we had to recruit and confirm Penn State faculty who would teach sections of these courses especially for PSF students (during ‘daylight’ hours in China and Korea),” he said. “Naturally, too, the students also had to go through course registration as well as pre-arrival and on-site orientations.”

The College of Education has been in contact with its students enrolled in the Penn State First programs, according to Greg Mason, director of the Advising and Certification Center. “These international students typically are highly motivated, academically speaking,” Mason said. “They have been well-prepared in Chinese secondary schools for our academic content.

“Of course, what they are missing out on is the social integration to university life, which is true for many of our students right now. The interaction with other students from other backgrounds and beliefs … that’s a hallmark of university life, and it’s certainly a bit more stunted than usual right now.”

Mason said that some degree of anxiety is to be expected. “It’s not just the students feeling it, we all are, given the ambiguity of how this pandemic will unfold in the coming weeks and months,” he said. 

“Acknowledging it to students is important, but also keeping an eye on them to ensure that they are not disengaging from their academics; that would be a red flag for us.”

 The social integration situation is a concern for students who aspired to be living in State College, Pennsylvania, instead of their Far East homeland.

“To be in my home country to begin my semester, it is hard for me to contact and meet with foreign students. It will also be harder for me to have new international friends under this special circumstance,” said future early childhood education major Ziyi Lin. 

Both Lin and Zhang have two in-person classes and three that are online.

Zhang said she’d rather have face-to-face in-class discussions. “Sometimes, meeting classmates face-to-face is very important for both the relationship between students and the enthusiasm of study,” she said.

Another challenge, according to Anna Marshall, program manager of the Penn State First program, is the 13-hour time difference in terms of scheduling classes. 

“Some of our Penn State remote classes are late at night which is hard for students who are taking day-time residential classes and have to remain vigilant for their night Penn State classes,” Marshall said.

 “And the uncertainty of Sino-US relationship (relating to diplomatic relations between China and the United States) is a big concern to our students as they aspire to return to a Penn State campus soon.”

Brubaker and Marshall said the program is supported by Penn State alumni in China.

“Eight Penn State alumni in Shanghai recently attended the PSF’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebration on Sept. 27. I also programmed the alumni connect event for Penn State First freshmen to visit firms run by our Penn State alumni in Shanghai,” Marshall said. 

“Just this week (late October), Penn State First students visited Penn State alumni’s firms in Shanghai such as Alipay, GW Laser, Canvas and Anpac. These trips provide our students with an insight into the internal working of companies while building connections between our PSF students and Penn State alumni in Shanghai. All these co-curricular programs are to promote Penn State’s goals for academic excellence, diversity and global citizenship.”

Brubaker praised the cooperation of the Penn State alumni involved in Penn State First. “The more critical piece of alumni involvement has been their engagement with the PSF students on-site,” he said. “Some Shanghai chapter members (including the president) attended the orientation; we are also working with alumni in Shanghai and Seoul to have them speak with our Penn State First students about their academic and career trajectories.”

Lin wants to learn more about Penn State, the College of Education and State College. “In China, the information is limited for me to get to know them although I can search online,” she said. “I need to concentrate on my studies in order to keep up. I hope I will be able to get to the campus next September, but I have applied to stay in the Shanghai program for spring 2021.”

Mason noted that 11 students have applied for the program for the spring semester. He stressed that when these students do arrive on the Penn State campus that in-person meetings with his staff will be critically important, once it is safe to meet in person.

“I’d like to have them participate in some form of New Student Orientation, since they will be new to their respective campuses,” he said.

Zhang looks forward to that possibility. “I’d love to go to Penn State and enjoy my college life in U.S. if the situation gets better,” she said.

Sarah Moryken, the college’s recruitment and retention coordinator, also is in contact with students who are learning remotely to establish connections between them and the college even though they are not on campus. 

She has been promoting virtually the Student Opportunities, Advocacy and Resources (S.O.A.R.) program as well as the Restore program, which is a focus on activities to engage and connect students while promoting stress relief and relaxation.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 17, 2020