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International student thrives as a Blugold despite pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: An international student from China, Lan Yang embraced every opportunity during her 2 ½ years as a Blugold, despite studying at UW-Eau Claire during a global pandemic. A finance major, she will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month, then return to China for her final semester there. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

When Lan Yang came from China to study at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she found exactly what she was looking for in an American university — plenty of snow.

“I come from a very beautiful coastal city where it is much warmer than here,” says Yang, who grew up in the city of Zhangzhou in the Fujian province of China. “I heard there is lots of snow in Wisconsin, and I had never seen snow before. That is the main reason I chose this university. And the snow view here is as splendid as I imagined.”

Like her hometown in China, the Eau Claire campus and community also are beautiful, Yang says, adding that the parks along the rivers and the many bridges throughout the city are like in Zhangzhou.

“I am extremely happy to be here,” Yang says. “I really enjoy the time I have spent here.”

Dual program with China

A finance major who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month, Yang is part of the university’s dual-degree program with Huaqiao University in China.

The Cooperation in Higher Education and Professional Development (CHEPD) is a successful 1+2+1 program where students from China spend their first and fourth years at their home campus, and their second and third years in Eau Claire. They earn degrees from UW-Eau Claire and their university in China.

Yang, who soon will return to China for her final semester at Huaqiao University, chose the dual-degree program because she wanted “a different experience than most people at my age.”

“To experience two educational system in two different countries sounds appealing to me,” Yang says. “Studying in United States requires stronger inner motivation and initiatives from students, since no one on campus is going to tell you what you should do next. I have more time for myself after class, while I probably have the full class schedule all the week in China.”

The CHEPD 1+2+1 program provides opportunities for Chinese students, like Lan Yang, to obtain learning experiences in the United States, says Yiliu Yang, UW-Eau Claire’s Chinese program manager.

“I believe that university is more than just about getting a degree or dual degree, it’s also a place that inspires the purpose of life, being positive wellbeing and success,” Yiliu Yang says. “Lan is one of the CHEPD students who grows tremendously with her amazing experiences while studying and living in UW-Eau Claire.”

Embracing life as a Blugold

During her 2½ years as a Blugold, Yang also has found plenty of things to love — in addition to its beautiful winters — about UW-Eau Claire, including its liberal arts-based education model.

When she first came to UW-Eau Claire, Yang was confused about the need to take classes that fall well outside her finance major. Now, she says, she sees how valuable these courses are in helping her become a more well-rounded person and critical thinker.

For example, Yang was skeptical taking a class in theater, doubting that the class would do more than give her the necessary credits.

“We watched a few classic plays, my favorite is ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder,” Yang says. “We get to explore the scene setup, costume design — our professor is a professional costume designer — and the literariness in scriptwriting. It makes me a better audience member every time I walk in a theater.”

As a finance major, Yang also has enjoyed many courses she’s taken in the College of Business. Her Legal and Regulatory Environment and Wealth Management classes are at the top of her list of favorites, primarily because of the exceptional faculty who taught them, she says.

“They bring the textbook knowledge to a practical level,” Yang says of her professors. “For example, Dr. Melissa Emerson is very knowledgeable and uses diverse resources to support the theories. All cases she used for assignments are deeply related to the lessons and inspires students to explore more by themselves.”

She especially appreciates that UW-Eau Claire’s small classes make it easy for her to connect with professors, Yang says.

“I definitely get more support and attention from instructors,” Yang says. “They make learning the way it should be. But I have good general relationships with my instructors in both countries. They are the reason why I grew up so fast during these four years.”

A campus leader

Outside the classroom, Yang has embraced the many opportunities she’s found to immerse herself in the campus community.

Among those opportunities is assisting the UW-Eau Claire’s women’s volleyball team, which earned its first NCAA Division IIII national championship title this season. During some competitions, Yang, who is a huge volleyball fan, would serve as libero tracker, recording the team’s substitutions and tracking the libero, or back-row defensive specialists.

“I thank Coach Kim Wudi for giving me this chance,” Yang says. “I am genuinely happy for the Blugolds' first NCAA championship. I am a huge fan of UWEC women’s volleyball and, honestly, just volleyball for many years.”

Yang also is a student assistant in the Center for International Education (CIE), a student senator and serves as a member of the Equity in Student Matters Commission.

She is especially proud of her work for CIE, Yang says. Getting to know the CIE staff has been a highlight of her time at UW-Eau Claire. It’s also rewarding, she says, to help fellow Blugolds with their study aboard programs and to support other international students.

“The Center for International Education is my favorite place on campus,” Yang says, adding that her work there helped her grow in so many ways. “I remember introducing graduate students at farewell receptions, designing a Chinese menu for school dining and being a peer guide for international student orientation. This place makes me feel I am making some positive impacts on campus, though they might be small.”

These and other outside-the-classroom experiences helped her grow as a student and as a person, Yang says.

“I met so many wonderful people through those experiences, and some of them turned into my friends,” Yang says. “I am grateful that I was able to take those positions because they make my life here fulfilling.”

Those connections were especially important given the pandemic and its impact on the campus community, Yang says.

“Not only me, but everyone has gone through a lot physically and mentally during the pandemic,” Yang says. “Those organizations taught me to care more about others rather than myself. Some of my skills were improved, too. For example, my communication and time management skills.”

It’s been a joy to see Yang grow into her role as a leader on UW-Eau Claire’s campus, says Jackson Schmidtke, a student abroad coordinator in CIE.

“She has grown so much since she got here; she’s really embraced everything about UWEC,” Schmidtke says. “She has turned into a leader in our office, helping to mentor our new student workers, and she’s a leader on campus with the International Students Association (ISA) and Senate. She does stats for the volleyball team. She’s done it all.

“I’m obviously really excited for her that she’s graduating, but she’s going to be missed in the CIE both for her knowledge and work ethic but also her personality and spirit.” 

In her role as president of ISA, Yang worked with Counseling Services to create a well-attended session on mental health, a topic not talked about openly in many countries, says Colleen Marchwick, director of the CIE.

“Lan organized a great workshop in conjunction with Counseling Services to address international student mental health issues, which is a topic with divergent cultural views and can be a taboo subject among some cultural communities,” Marchwick says.

Impact of COVID-19

When COVID-19 upended the world and moved UW-Eau Claire classes online, many international students returned to their home countries. Yang tried to return to China, but flights were expensive and unpredictable as they were continuously canceled.

She also worried that if she returned to China, her student visa would be at risk, which would have made it impossible for her to return to UW-Eau Claire to continue her studies after the pandemic.

“When the policies were still ambiguous, the best choice for me was to stay,” Yang says.

Fortunately, the campus and Eau Claire communities gave her support throughout these last 18 months, Yang says.

“I don’t feel anything was specifically difficult thanks to people around me,” Yang says. “I stayed with my host family for a few months, and I moved back to school housing for summer break.

“In this period, professors made the best adjustments they could do for classes. I was taking Dr. Jean Eichhorst’s geography class, and I remember she even emailed me to ask me what she can do to help. I am still grateful for the kindness she showed at that time.”

Marchwick says she was impressed by how Yang handled herself during such an uncertain and difficult time, even taking on more leadership roles across campus.

“Lan is an example for all students, not just international students,” Marchwick says. “In the face of a very difficult moment — the pandemic — she made the decision to embrace the opportunities that existed around her.

“She worked in the CIE, became a student senator, served on the Commission for Equity in Student Matters, became president of the International Students Association, kept stats for the volleyball team and participated in first-generation student day.

“She is really an example of someone who overcame challenges to engage with the campus community.”

Recently, Yang’s success in the dual-degree program was recognized by Huaqiao University, where she received an award for her cross-cultural engagement.

Next steps

After graduation, Yang will return to China to complete her final semester at Huaqiao University. At the same time, she will complete an internship in China.

Once her final semester ends and she completes her capstone paper, Yang will officially graduate from Huaqiao University.

“By then, I will have received two diplomas from Huaqiao University and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire,” Yang says.