University of Rhode Island students seek to foster U.S.-China study, relations as Project Pengyou fellows

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Attend leadership training summit at Harvard University

KINGSTON, R.I. – October 23, 2014 – University of Rhode Island students Eric Reels and Minh Pham are keenly aware of China’s growing global influence and its increasingly complex relationship with the United States.

Reels and Pham were selected from hundreds of applicants nationwide to serve as Project Pengyou Leadership Fellows, and they recently attended a U.S.-China Leadership Training Summit at Harvard University to explore how they can help empower and mobilize a new generation of leaders to bridge the cultural divide between the two nations.

“It’s like being in gym class, and China used to be the scrawny kid in middle school. Then he reached high school, began hitting the gym and is now one of the big guys,” Reels said. “It becomes a situation where it’s like, do you want to play with him, or against him? We want to help people gain a cultural understanding of China and realize that we are on the same global team, not the opposition.”

Along with 40 other Leadership Fellows, Reels and Pham spent Columbus Day weekend learning about topics including leadership, community organizing and U.S.-China bridge building.

Reels and Pham now are tasked with establishing a Project Pengyou chapter at the University of Rhode Island to share what they’ve learned. Project Pengyou (“pengyou” means friend in Mandarin) is a program conceived as an alumni network of the 100,000 Strong Initiative, a presidential campaign that sent 100,000 Americans to study in China.

Many of those students have found little support to continue their Chinese studies since their return to the U.S, said Pham, a junior from Woonsocket, R.I. and native of Vietnam who is majoring in Chinese and civil engineering. Project Pengyou aims to build a network that will allow these students to continue meaningful engagement with China or China study.

“We’re very fortunate here at URI to have the Chinese Flagship Program,” Pham said. “There are a lot of students at other schools who travel to China to study, but then have no way to practice their language skills and tell their stories when they return.

“URI, however, has a lot of programs working with the Chinese Flagship Program, including the International Engineering Program, the International Business Program and the Confucius Institute,” Pham said. “Our goal with Project Pengyou is to bridge these groups to attract more people and give them a chance to practice their language and cultural studies skills.”

Reels, a senior from West Warwick, R.I., who is majoring in Chinese, French and anthropology, said he and Pham intend to recruit other students to form a leadership team for URI’s Pengyou chapter.

Once the group’s leadership is in place, Reels and Pham said they will host campus activities to promote China study and constructive engagement between American and Chinese citizens.

One of the first activities they plan to organize is a meet and greet to connect those who have studied abroad and those who are interested in studying abroad.

They also will provide opportunities for members to develop leadership skills and participate in “pay it forward” projects in the community.

Reels and Pham hope to establish the URI Pengyou chapter by early November so they can begin planning activities for “Pengyou Day,” a massive day of action at universities across the U.S. on Nov. 20 to celebrate U.S.-China friendship.

“We want to reach out to students beyond the Chinese Flagship Program and encourage them to study in China to meet their language requirement,” Reels said. “Today, there are still more college students studying Latin than Chinese.”

Reels also noted that despite China’s growing global influence, just one in 1,000 American college students studied abroad in China during 2013. There are more than 12 times as many Chinese students studying in the U.S. than there are Americans studying in China.

Erin Papa, assistant director of URI’s Chinese Flagship Program, said the selection of two URI students to serve as Project Pengyou Leadership Fellows is a great honor for the University, as well as Reels and Pham.

“I think it says that the Chinese Flagship Program here in Kingston is making its mark at the national level,” Papa said. “Our program is fairly new. Chinese was only approved as a major in 2011, but we’ve made great strides and we’re producing students with a higher level of proficiency than you would expect for a typical holder of a bachelor of arts in such a short amount of time.”