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Dual-diploma students who ‘seized the opportunity’ prepare to graduate

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Four students from China are the first materials science and engineering students to graduate from UW-Eau Claire's dual-degree program. Seated, from left, are Maoda Ge and Yunyi Huang; standing, from left, are Ziyan Yang and Jun Jie Dai. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Students from China enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s dual-degree program had to make a life-changing decision in spring 2020, whether to continue their education in the U.S. or return to their homeland during the pandemic.

Seventeen of those who decided to stay “seized the opportunity offered by UWEC,” says Yiliu Yang, program manager in UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education.

In May, 10 students from Changshu Institute of Technology and seven from Huaqiao University will graduate from the dual-degree program, earning degrees from both UW-Eau Claire and their home universities.

“They are resilient and brave to embrace the challenges and difficulties and turn those odds into opportunities,” Yang says.

Materials science and engineering student Maoda Ge and Yunyi Huang hosted a hot pot dinner with friends during their stay at UW-Eau Claire. (Submitted photo)

Materials science and engineering student Maoda Ge and Yunyi Huang hosted a hot pot dinner with friends during their stay at UW-Eau Claire. (Submitted photo)

UW-Eau Claire has had dual-degree programs through the Center for International Education since 2007, with a total of 278 students graduating from the programs. The Cooperation in Higher Education and Professional Development (CHEPD) is a 1+2+1 program that provides students from China the opportunity to spend their first and fourth years at their home campus, and their second and third years at UW-Eau Claire.

But this cohort faced adversity unlike any previous groups.

In spring 2020, students in the dual-degree program had to decide whether to remain on campus as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. and the world. Thirty-two of the 58 students who had enrolled in the program that semester withdrew from the university and went home to China.

Those students who stayed at UW-Eau Claire had to adjust to the mode of instruction for some classes from in-person to remote learning.

Six of the 10 students from CIT did research with faculty, including four students who became the first materials science and engineering students from China to graduate from the dual-degree program.

“We knew it was going to be a difficult course of study with students taking intro courses in China then coming here, improving their English and then taking upper-level science and engineering courses in English,” says Dr. Doug Dunham, a professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Materials Science and Engineering Center at UW-Eau Claire. “That was all before COVID. When COVID hit after they arrived, I wasn’t so sure completing the degree was going to be possible. 

“This group of students has really impressed me with their perseverance and hard work. They accomplished the very difficult that was made even more difficult with COVID. We are extremely proud of them.”

One of those MSE students, Yunyi Huang, a native of Suzhou, China, found her education at UW-Eau Claire to be a unique experience of learning and experimentation. Though she occasionally struggled with communication and comprehending information, Huang says her time at UW-Eau Claire went “generally smooth.”

Yunyi Haung, left, and Ziyan Yang enjoyed apple picking in the Chippewa Valley. (Submitted photo)

Yunyi Haung, left, and Ziyan Yang enjoyed apple picking in the Chippewa Valley. (Submitted photo)

“Because of the epidemic, I took the opportunity to experience the American customs, and customs around the school in my spare time,” Huang says. “I do not regret it.”

MSE student Maoda Ge came to UW-Eau Claire from his hometown of Nanjing because he had always wanted to study in the U.S. He chose the dual-degree program to “get in touch with different cultures and education.”

“The people here are very warm and tolerant of cultural differences,” Ge says. “I made some friends here and spending time with them helped me adapt to the cultural differences quickly.”

Ge says his MSE program provided both opportunities and challenges. He called the course content “substantial,” but said faculty helped guide him through the program with detailed instructions and patient explanations of expectations.

Ziyan Yang, a native of the Jiangsu Province, says she had to adjust to the Wisconsin weather and American food during her stay, but thoroughly enjoyed her MSE courses.

“There is a saying that the more you know, the more you feel like you don’t know anything,” Yang says. “Critical thinking is emphasized in every course. The more I study, the more questions I have. I begin to pay attention to the things I’m used to in life and think about the causes. When I solve (problems), I feel a sense of achievement.”

Jun Jie Dai, who also came to UW-Eau Claire from the Jiangsu Province, says he enrolled in the program because he wanted the challenge of studying abroad.

He agreed that online classes and mask-wearing because of COVID-19 made his MSE courses more difficult, but the knowledge he gained and the friends he made made it worthwhile.