Crossing oceans: Study abroad program bridges divide

iSchool student Justin Melde had never traveled outside the U.S., not even to Canada. So when he stepped off the airplane in Beijing this August as part of the iSchool’s first China Study Abroad program, he was hit with a new sensation. “The first moment I realized I was in a different country was when I walked out the jet bridge and saw all the signs in Chinese and realized I couldn’t rely on that as a source of information. It was a big moment,” he says.

After five intense weeks, the engaging Master of Library and Information Science student had made fast friends with Chinese peers in his product development course, led a bilingual team in developing his “weird” idea for a dating app, visited the bucket list sites of China with his UW cohort, and made his mark as a bold adventurer by setting out for one of the most remote, un-touristed parts of southern China with a couple UW buddies and no translator.

Watching students in this summer’s first China Study Abroad program break through cultural and linguistic divides and grow confident in a world foreign to them was deeply gratifying for iSchool senior lecturer Bob Boiko, director of the new program. “One of the reasons I was interested in doing this was to expose my students to a truly intercultural experience,” says Boiko, an avid global traveler who left his home in New York at age 17 and “never looked back.”

The China Study Abroad program he helped shape is a joint venture between the UW iSchool and the Peking University’s Department of Information Management summer institute. Peking University, known colloquially as Beida, is considered the “Harvard of China,” says Boiko. “It’s not A school but THE school in China. And even at Beida, they look up to the UW iSchool.”

Instructors in the summer course included Boiko, three professors from Peking University, and international product design experts from the U.S., China, and Taiwan representing such cutting-edge firms as Avanade and Alibaba. Keeping everything organized – from campus digs to field trips – was program coordinator Yunhao Shen, who earned his bachelor’s in management information systems at Peking University in 2012, his Master of Science in Information Management degree at the UW earlier this year, and was a point man in bringing his trans-Pacific professors together for a promising partnership.

“We couldn’t have done any of this without Yunhao,” said Melde. “He knows both worlds – and he did an amazing job.”

Fourteen students came from the UW, 11 of them from the iSchool. Almost 50 top Chinese students, selected from a pool of about 500, joined them. Students were challenged to form bi-cultural teams and create online products that would work in both American and Asian markets. They had three weeks to develop an interactive prototype and make a presentation. It wasn’t much time. And there were big challenges.

The first few awkward days, Chinese students clumped on one side of the room, Americans on the other, says Boiko. Most of the UW iSchool students didn’t speak Chinese. The Chinese students worried their English wasn’t good enough. Boiko introduced exercises to break the ice, assisted by Shen. “I can understand the Chinese student ideas and the U.S. student ideas so I could serve as a kind of bridge,” says Shen.

By the time students had pitched ideas for projects and formed teams to put them into action, barriers were crumbling. Chinese and American students not only began working together, they hung out together, sharing everything from meals to the music of Macklemore. By the time presenter Cindy Mitchell, MSIM ’06, arrived in week three to teach students how to create “elevator speeches” for their presentations, the walls were down. 

“It was amazing to me how bonded and bridged and merged students had become in such a short period of time,” says Mitchell, who retired as Alaska Airline’s director of strategic execution earlier this year.

She was equally impressed with the sophistication of the student prototypes. A “HiBay” mobile app, awarded the end-of-course Critic’s Choice award, guided shoppers traveling overseas in search of high-end luxury goods to top-brand stores. Melde’s team, which took Best Presentation and Best Teamwork awards, played off his idea of taking a date to a grocery store and gathering ingredients for a shared, home-cooked meal. His team quickly expanded the “AskGin” app to include a menu of inventive dating sites, with links to maps, date tips from users, and a personal dating history recorded on the front page.

“We had so many late nights with me in front of a whiteboard, trying to figure out all these things you don’t usually think about -- like how you structure  user feedback to make your idea better,” says Melde, who came home considering a career switch.  “I thought I wanted to work in a library for the rest of my life. After going to China and hearing all these great industry experts, I’m interested now in doing a start-up or a non-profit.”

His instructors faced their own intercultural challenges this summer, trying to mesh different teaching styles in a way that was true to both cultures and beneficial to students. In China, says Shen, students typically just sit and “listen, listen, listen,” passively absorbing lectures. Boiko’s teaching style was engage, engage, engage. At the same time, Boiko wanted step-by-step direction for the course, with explicit check-off points for students. His Chinese colleagues, in an unexpected move, wanted to simply give the students a goal and let them explore ideas.

Negotiations ensued, resulting in what Boiko calls a “hybridization” of course structure and a busting of stereotypes. “What we found is there is much more variability from person to person than from culture to culture.”

The new China Study Abroad program is a big step toward what Boiko hopes will be a long-lasting partnership.  Organizers envision a future of expanded student and faculty exchanges, joint entrepreneurial projects, and shared research labs as the two top schools extend their global footprints. “There is a good reason for us to be friends, because we have similar ideas,” says Boiko. “This could be transforming for both our schools.”