U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University

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Days 4 and 5:  Study abroad in Xi’an

I’ve combined the entry for Days 4 and 5 because they really did run together in my visit with the Alliance Program in Xi’an.  A bit over half of Day 4 got consumed in getting from Shanghai to Xi’an, But once I got there Darren Wright, the Alliance resident director, proved an indefatigable and gracious host.  This visit left me with a clear understanding of what I’d do if I had a magic elixir that could return me to the world of college students thinking about a global education.  I’d try to get at least a semester in Xi’an. 

Darren Wright, Resident Director for the Alliance Program in Xi’an The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an

I had expected the Alliance program to be good, but Xi’an itself had proved a real surprise.  A number of people – both in the U.S. and in China – had given Xi’an a bad rap – heavily industrial, polluted, dull,  extreme poverty, and very provincial.   Overall, I expected the “Terracotta Warriors” set outside a dull, backward town. 
Thursday afternoon at the Wild Goose Pagoda Park – Music with a coordinated water display and a light show at night.

Not so.  True, the Terracotta Warriors are just outside the city, but almost nothing else I’d been told about Xi’an got borne out on the ground.  Besides a very, very deep history, Xi’an proved itself one of those places you’d have to mark as “on the move.”  Things are happening there.

Before I let myself go on the history of Xi’an, I’ll do a short public service announcement for the Xi’an Chamber of Commerce. Xi’an is a “happening place.”  Some also call it the high tech capital of China.  Xi’an is the R&D center for the Chinese aerospace industry and plays a very important part in the Chinese space program.  With over 100 universities in the region, higher education is a major industry.  In fact, the Xi’an region produces the largest number of engineering graduates of any region in China.  The Chinese government began making significant economic development commitment to Xi’an as the hub for northwestern China.  As early as the 1950s, the government began transplanting university faculties to Xi’an in areas of study such as medicine, dentistry, and pharmaceutical research.  As a result, Xi’an is a leading Chinese center for medical research and advance medical education.

As with other high tech areas around the world, the heavy concentration of techies creates some curious by-products in the local culture.  Xi’an claims to host the world’s largest internet café, with something over 3,000 computers available.  It is also the center of the Chinese gaming and game programming industry, regularly hosting major international computer gaming events.  

On the Thursday afternoon I arrived in Xi’an, Darren Wright took me to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to see the daily water display (with music) and to stroll the surrounding streets, with their international cafes, clubs, craft shops and galleries.  We even ran across a TREK bicycle retailer.  The park at the Pagoda had thousands of people sunning, watching the water display, and simply strolling about.  According to Darren, the day was probably a bit more busy than typical because of the holiday, but not really very much out of the ordinary. 

A neighborhood walk in Xi’an

Public Art at the Wild Goose Pagoda Park
Shops, restaurants, and craft galleries in Xi’an
At a local craft shop Alliance students can (and do) learn to “throw a pot” --or they can buy one from a local potter who may have  more skill.


I arrived mid-day on the second day of the autumn festival and spent most of the afternoon with Darren Wright on a whirlwind city tour syncopated with an ongoing briefing on the Alliance programs.  Darren is new in his position.  In fact, this is his first semester in Xi’an.  He is extraordinarily well organized.  His briefing materials are excellent, and I was truly impressed with his ability to provide so much background on Xi’an.  He has lived and worked in China off and on for more than 10 years at this point, and in those periods he’s had back in the states he’s managed to pick up MAs in both modern Chinese literature and religious studies.  He’s especially well versed in East Asian Buddhism and Islam, which makes for a great fit in Xi’an.

Besides its role as a high-tech, medical, and education center, Xi’an is noted as the historical eastern terminus of the Tang Dynasty’s Silk Road.  It is a city with a very long history of multiculturalism and global religious interactions.  Besides the “Wild Goose Pagoda” (the major historical center for Chinese Buddhism), Xi’an also boasts the “Great Mosque of Xi’an,” which claims to be the largest mosque in China.

Overall, Darren convinced me that Xi’an offers Alliance students a stimulating, open, and exciting co-curricular life.  There is a great deal for students to do in Xi’an.

Speaking of students, the group of seven currently in Xi’an seems to be having an extraordinarily rich experience.  At least that’s what they told me when they took me to lunch on Friday.  It was kind of a celebration -- Big test in Chinese every second Friday.  Plus, they were excited about getting ready to leave on their two-week “Silk Road” field experience.  The next day, they were flying to Kasghar, and I heard about sleeping in a yurt, riding camels, and camping out in the desert – along with the need to find extra flashlights, batteries, and memory chips for cameras. 

The test was hard, but fair, and they told me about things like using their Mandarin on a “scavenger hunt” at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.  As with all the Alliance programs, they have Chinese graduate students as language partners, and while the language partners were allowed to help them prepare for the scavenger hunt, Darren’s rules dictated that they had to handle all the negotiations and cultural navigation on their own—even the first semester language students!  (They all made it back!)

I asked these students how they would answer the question, “Why Xi’an?” if a Bryant student asked them about study abroad in China.  They had immediate answers, the most striking of which was “you have room to learn here.”  The young woman who said that was referring to the breadth of experiences possible and the scope of co-curricular possibilities – not the physical space.  I was certainly intrigued by her concept, as were her classmates.  We actually took off on quite a long discussion of what it means to have “room to learn.” 

A second answer was that “Xi’an is among the most diverse and culturally active cities in China.”  Again, this created a chorus of agreement and comments about Xi’an’s very visible Buddhist and Muslim populations.  The students credited the very strong “silk road” legacy for a feeling of comfortable multiculturalism that they see as a part of the Xi’an cultural fabric. 

A third answer pointed to the depth of China’s history in and around Xi’an.   That comment launched yet another discussion.  Overall, these students are very clear on why they have chosen Xi’an, and they are happy with their choice.

Each of the Alliance programs in China has a theme and an academic focus.  Here, in Xi’an, it is the Silk Road Legacy and the history of Chinese Art.  Besides their 9 credit hours of Mandarin, all students take 2 courses, on the Silk Road and its legacy today and another on the history of Chinese arts and their legacy in modern art.  This is an island program (as are all the Alliance programs), but it is hosted at Shaanxi Normal University (陕西师范大学), which ranks as one of China’s “top” universities granting education degrees.  Shaanxi Normal is a “key university,” which means the central government pays the tuition for all qualified Chinese students and funds the significant capital costs that follow from creating a university that currently enrolls nearly 40,000 students.

Shaanxi doesn’t feel like a mega university.  As an alumnus of the University of Michigan, I know what that feels like.  That’s not Shaanxi.  The campus is extraordinarily clean and well maintained.  The level of care and attention to the facilities reminds me much more strongly of Bryant University than either Michigan or Ohio State.  The grounds are immaculate, the classrooms spotless, and the facilities are first-rate overall.  I’ve visited a good many Chinese universities, and many are very, very nice.  When it comes to facilities, however, Shaanxi Normal need not yield to any competition that I’ve seen. 

The International College at Shaanxi Normal. The lobby and gift shop at the International Hotel. (Also the “dorm” for Alliance students)
The convenience store for international students.


The “Field Experience” is a highlight of all the Alliance programs.  In Xi’an, the integration of this co-curricular activity with the program themes of art history and the Silk Road is particularly strong.  The trip to Kashgar, Lake Kalakuli, and Urumqi has obvious connections to the program coursework, and students are expected to bring their experiences into the classroom.  The local field trip to the pottery studio carried the same kind of co-curricular significance for their art history course.

The dining services for students are modern, attractive, and clean.  Alliance students told me the food is also first-rate and inexpensive. International students have unlimited hot water in their “dorm” rooms.  Domestic students get the hot water for tea from this central station.  They drop their bottle on the way to class and fill it on the way back to their dorm.

They call them “dorm” rooms here, but the rooms for international students come with maid service, balconies, air-conditioning, and all the amenities of a hotel.


This tour of the Alliance program in Xi’an was a real highlight of my trip so far.  Of course, there have been many highlights, but what I mean here is that I found myself repeatedly surprised by everything about the program.  Of course, I did not come here with “negative” expectations.  Still, the breadth, depth, and coherence of the academics and co-curricular program took me by surprise.  I guess I was expecting something of a “provincial” feel.  I didn’t see any of that, and I think the Alliance students have it nailed:  “There’s room to learn here.”

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