Alan Gorr, dean of Benedictine University's new Global College, was in China this summer to interview incoming students for the master of public health program Benedictine has started to offer in northeast China.
He found the students needed help with English, but had a good grasp of the American generalist approach to public health -- which is far different from China's specialized programs. The American approach allows health care professions to work in teams, he said.
"No program has ever been taught in China before like this," he said. "I thought it would be a hard sell and very foreign to them. They understood it extremely well. They were ready for it."
Since Benedictine decided it needed to go international in 2000, with a primary focus on the People's Republic of China, it has found eager students in the world's most populous country that boasts the world's second largest economy.
"They appreciate the differences in culture, perhaps more than we do. They want to see the world as we see it. Not necessarily to become that, but so they have a choice," Gorr said.
Benedictine now has partnerships with 14 Chinese universities. One thousand Chinese students have graduated from the master's programs -- offering degrees in business administration and management information systems -- that Benedictine has offered in China since 2004.
It began offering the same programs in Vietnam in 2009, where Gorr estimated Benedictine has 200 current students. This is in addition to the approximately 130 international students who attend classes on Benedictine's Lisle campus, the 40 on its Springfield campus, the university's American-born students who study abroad, and its partnerships with colleges and universities in 35 to 40 other countries, said Benedictine President William Carroll.
"If you are going to be an educated person in the 21st century, you better have international experience," Carroll said. "We're like the United Nations. We have students from all over. We're probably one of the most diverse universities in the country."
With the international emphasis only expected to grow, Benedictine announced the formation of the Global College this spring to coordinate and develop its programs and services abroad.
Gorr, a 15-year faculty member at Benedictine who spent the last eight years as the dean of the College of Education and Health Services, was chosen to lead the Global College.
"He's a Renaissance man. Alan is wonderful with people. He has wonderful international experience," Carroll said. "He is a great representative of the university."
Gorr, who holds a master's degree in public health and a doctorate in the social foundations of education, spent 10 years as an intermittent consultant with the World Health Organization. He worked primarily in Myanmar, but also in Sudan, Egypt, India and Thailand.
"It rewires your brain. I think it changed me a lot," Gorr said of his experience working abroad. "I'm pretty good at figuring out how things are done in other countries."
Gorr's global experience also has given him a deeper appreciation for American higher education.
"American higher education, for all its faults, is far and way the world leader," Gorr said. "There's a certain intellectual ferment that everybody wants. They see things in us that we ourselves are just not conscious of."
Gorr said Benedictine has physicians from countries such as Libya, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh coming to earn master's of public health degrees because they want to build on their profession.
"It is true that Benedictine is a magnet for people from other countries," he said.
Gorr's administrative assistant, Tong Shang, a Chinese international student who earned her master's of business administration from Benedictine in August, said part of the attraction to U.S. institutions is the American approach to education. In China, classes consist more of textbooks, lecture and theory than hands-on practice and discussion, she said.
"You have a lot of interaction with teachers here," she said. "I'm trying to stay here."
But the exchange isn't all one way. Gorr said Benedictine encourages its sometimes reluctant undergraduate students, who are often the children of immigrants, to study abroad. For the last four years, the Chinese government has given several Benedictine students full scholarships to cover tuition, lodging, medical insurance, living allowances and learning materials.
Stephanie Rodriguez of Addison, a Benedictine international business and economics graduate now pursuing an MBA, is spending the fall semester at Shanghai International Studies University in Shanghai.
Fluent in Spanish and English, Rodriguez wants to add Chinese to the languages she knows. Rodriguez said in an email she found the Chinese students and faculty welcoming, and the Chinese language course she is taking rigorous.
"I have met so many people who have influenced me to think differently for the better. I have become more open-minded and am definitely considering coming back to China," she said.
Rebecca Trettenero, a sophomore Spanish major from Aurora, said she was having a similarly positive experience in Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, where she is studying for the full academic year.
She said she is learning the Chinese language not just in class, but in the supermarket and other places she goes.
"What I have noticed so far about the education here is that learning is not just based on your score, but on how prepared you are to learn," she said. "I hope when I return home I will be able to fluently speak Chinese and have a great understanding of the people and culture of China. I will never forget this wonderful experience."
Carroll said he expects the experience abroad to give Benedictine students the edge when they leave the university and enter the job market.
"The actual experience on the ground will be a differential for our students," he said.
Not just Benedictine students are getting global experience, but faculty members who teach internationally. Nearly 20 faculty members from Benedictine recently spent two weeks in China sharing teaching methodologies.
Ron Rivers has taught business courses in both China and Vietnam for periods of time that range from 10 days to four weeks. He said he has found the students in both countries eager and less likely than American students to look at education as an entitlement.
The students with a better grasp of English ask a lot of questions, he said. Their questions and interest in the outside world may eventually lead them to be less satisfied with the governments in their own countries, he said.
"I believe the more they know about this, the more they may think democracy is the right way to go," he said.
Carroll said Benedictine's Roman Catholic tradition has not been an obstacle to forging relationships in other countries, even in Communist China. Of the 14 American education programs in China, three of them are Benedictine's.
"It's kind of remarkable," Carroll said. "I think a lot of it is (that) our values are so close together."
In keeping with its focus on China, Benedictine began offering a minor in the Mandarin Chinese language this fall, with an option for a Chinese culture track. Gorr said Benedictine's global focus will continue to be on China, where it hopes to open its own campus as it has in Springfield and in Mesa, Ariz.
It also plans to continue to cultivate transfer students and offer some undergraduate classes in China. Benedictine is exploring opportunities in other countries as well, Gorr said.