The University of Kentucky's academic thoroughfare between Lexington and China stretched further last week as Chinese officials gave the go-ahead for UK to launch a Confucius Institute to amplify teaching of Chinese language and culture.
The news arrived as a delegation of UK deans and faculty prepared to fly to China later this week to finalize details for a summer study-abroad program at Shanghai University and cultivate other exchange programs in history, journalism and the fine arts.
This blossoming relationship between UK and the Chinese has become a centerpiece of UK's efforts to provide students with a more global education, particularly through exchange programs — an area in which the university has admittedly trailed some of its benchmark schools. Landing a Confucius Institute, of which there are fewer than 300 in the world, is a key move toward fostering a long-term relationship with Chinese institutions. It requires a stamp of approval from China's Ministry of Education.
"What you're going to see are more and more opportunities for connections," said Buck Ryan, a UK journalism professor who is scheduled to teach at Shanghai University this summer. "It's really big news for educating students in a world that's becoming increasingly connected and much smaller in terms of relationships."
UK officials confirmed to the Herald-Leader that the university received word of the approval, although a formal announcement isn't planned until the official documents are signed.
"We have already received congratulatory messages from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China and our partner institution, Shanghai University," said Michelle Gorin, marketing and communications manager at UK's Office of International Affairs.
The plan is for UK to open the institute in the fall, Gorin said.
In addition to UK, Western Kentucky University officials also learned last week that the Bowling Green university was approved for a Confucius Institute.
Even before the Confucius Institute, UK established some ties with China. The department of earth and environmental sciences and the Kentucky Geological Survey, for instance, have been conducting earthquake studies and research with counterparts at the Lanzhou Institute of Seismology. And the university's Office of International Affairs has increased student recruiting there in recent years. But UK, in recent months, has intensified its partnership with Shanghai University by establishing a language study program there in May.
The inaugural group of students will spend four weeks in the classroom polishing their skills in — or in some cases learning for the first time — Chinese languages. In addition, they will experience the culture in museum trips, tours of the historic city and attending the World Expo, which Shanghai hosts May 1 to October 31.
The program coordinators thought they would be fortunate to have 15 students sign up, said Liang Luo, an assistant professor of Chinese literature at UK who will serve as one of the exchange's co-directors. But with a week left before the March 15 application deadline, a dozen students already are on board, underscoring students' appetite for such experience.
Nearly half of the students who have signed up are in Luo's second-year Chinese language course, she said.
"But there also are a few who are absolute beginners," she said. "We try to accommodate all levels. We want people to get the experience." A couple of the advanced students who are going already have thick to-do lists.
Bradley Bruno, a Japanese major from Lexington who is learning Chinese, said he plans to use the trip to lay the foundation for research he will conduct next year as a grad student, in which he hopes to trace the migration of language from China to Korea to Japan.
Cassie Hardin, a sophomore international studies major from Lexington, said she's equally interested in absorbing the language and investigating how the rising superpower ticks.
"My goal is to assess the social standpoint right now in China, and gain some insight as to the economic situation," she said. That exploration might help her decide between choosing tracks in business or diplomacy.
As UK and Shanghai University continue to cultivate a partnership, other exchange programs are likely to spring up quickly.
Robert Shay, dean of the College of Fine Arts, is part of the seven-person UK delegation headed to Shanghai on Friday. He said he hopes to establish an exchange of arts professors between the two schools.
Shay noted that an increasing number of the college's more than two dozen faculty members specialize in or work with Asian art. "And from what I understand, (Shanghai University) has an enormous college of fine arts that just dwarfs ours," he said.
His trip won't end there, however. Shay will visit Xi'an, which is home to an enormous fine arts magnet academy. The hope is that UK can establish a pipeline between the school and UK to draw some of those talented students — and their out-of-state tuition — to Lexington, he said.
Another Shanghai-bound dean, Mark Kornbluh, who heads the College of Arts and Sciences, has his own secondary mission.
"I've been talking about faculty exchanges in the history department with Beijing University," said Kornbluh, who also is a history professor. "I'm hoping that will be an outcome of the trip."
Ryan, the journalism professor who also is traveling to Shanghai, will serve as UK's first visiting professor at Shanghai University and will teach reporting and editing for four weeks in June and July.
He doesn't speak Chinese, but he said he doesn't expect that to be a problem considering the appetite university students have for learning English. And he plans to bring several UK students who are aspiring international correspondents with him to get used to navigating a foreign land.
"Shanghai is the most European city in China. It has a history of diverse culture," he said. "I think it's really a perfect match to help our students understand how the world is getting smaller."