The United States, for all of its wealth and fabulous cable television shows, is admittedly not the worldliest country. As the joke goes, a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two is bilingual and a person who speaks one is American.
Robert Fried is trying to change this self-contained culture. Co-founder of the Chinese Language Institute, he has spent the last 18 months promoting and organizing educational trips to China specifically aimed at college students.
Robert Fried is motivated by the desire to bring greater understanding of global life to insulated university communities.
“What we ultimately want to see is a positive shift in attitudes about the international world,” he said.
This past June, his organization hosted a department of communication study program, which took 16 Virginia Tech students on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China, exploring both urban and rural areas over a three-week period.
Just a few years ago, Robert Fried was a Tech student preoccupied with the trials and tribulations of life in Blacksburg. His life — and worldview — changed drastically, however, after his older brother Bradford Fried introduced him to Chinese culture.
A family vacation to visit his brother in China during summer 2007 left him enamored with the country. Within days he knew he wanted to learn more.
“I was so interested with the language and the culture and how friendly the people were that I decided to stay that entire summer,” Robert Freid said. “I stayed alone in southern China for the next five weeks traveling around, interacting with the people and studying the language.”
He went back during the next two spring semesters, experiences that imbued him with a deep respect and fascination for Chinese society. He became fluent in notoriously complex Mandarin while soaking in the nation’s rich history and tradition.
Robert Fried and his brother founded CLI to provide American students with the same opportunity to gain exposure to Chinese life. Tech and many other universities don’t offer Chinese language or history major programs. He believes the study abroad programs fill this void for students interested in the subject.
CLI approached department of communication professors Edward Sewell and Dale Jenkins, as well as modern Chinese history professor Helen Schneider, with an offer to host the program. They were enthusiastic about the idea and began organizing and promoting the trip during fall semester 2009.
Jenkins said he “jumped at the chance” to participate. A veteran of Switzerland and eastern European study abroad trips, he enjoys the unique teaching opportunities foreign education programs provide.
“I love the interaction with the group of students,” Jenkins said. “It’s a very different scene than teaching on campus.”
Upon arriving in the Far East after a flight of nearly 13 hours, the participants quickly discovered that economic dominance is one of America and China’s few shared characteristics. Some of the students, including senior business major Wade Stephenson, found the acclimation to the foreign culture a bit daunting.
“There were too many thoughts when we got there. It’s a whole ’nother world, and it’s overwhelming for the first few days,” Stephenson said.
Junior communication major Rachel Lombardo said the locals’ friendliness helped the students feel at home after just a few days.
“They definitely took kindly to Americans,” Lombardo said. “They thought it was funny that we were such tourists. They would always come over and take pictures with us.”
The three-week program took the students across China to three different places: Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin, a rural area in the south known for its picturesque beauty.
There was a regular morning class schedule in addition to special events, such as a lecture on Chinese media from a communication professor at Peking University.
In the course of the program, students walked along the Great Wall, explored bustling Shanghai’s famous World Expo and enjoyed a variety of authentic Chinese cuisine.
The group also took advantage of the vibrant city nightlife, enjoying evenings out at Shanghai and Beijing clubs.