NAU exchange program attracts Chinese university students to dual-degree opportunity

Northern Arizona University is educating the next generation of globally competitive professionals and engaging Chinese and American university students through its 1+2+1 Dual-Degree Program.

The program was created through an international partnership between the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the Beijing-based China Center for International Education founded in 2001 in response to stringent national security measures put in place after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Students who complete the program end up with two college degrees — one from their home university in China and one from the partner American university.

“As part of getting a U.S. visa, there’s a requirement that the students show an intent to return to their home country,” said Daniel Palm, associate vice president for global initiatives and executive director of the Center for International Education at NAU (CIE). “By developing this program where the students had to return to China for the final year — hence the one year in China, two years here and one year back — it showed the intent that they must return to China for the final year in order to get both degrees.”

The 1+2+1 program provides an introduction to the American higher education system, which is beneficial to students who plan to return to the U.S. seeking a graduate degree. Many students use the program as a stepping stone to a Western graduate degree, which is extremely desirable in Asia, Palm said.

“A lot of Chinese universities are really focusing on internationalizing their curriculum these days,” said Bruce Wang, director of China Initiatives and assistant director of the Center for International Education. “Not only will they have a very enriching experience in college, being educated internationally, but also they will have a competitive advantage when they go back to China, having two degrees completed within four years.”

The brevity of the program also makes earning dual degrees relatively affordable, another important factor for students, Wang said.

The Dual-Degree Program includes many ways for Chinese and American students to interact and learn about each other and their world, Palm said. As part of the program, students must satisfy general education requirements, including classes on global diversity, ethnic diversity, and a plethora of optional classes about Western society — civilization, geography, philosophy and more.

CIE has an International Student Retention and Inclusion division that connects Chinese students with working professionals who help them integrate with American students, Wang said.

“A lot of students participate in clubs and organizations on campus,” Wang said. “I know some clubs are quite popular among our Chinese students.”

One such club, currently under development in collaboration with a partner Chinese university, is devoted to electric cars. The club pairs NAU’s mechanical engineering students with Chinese students majoring in automobile engineering, Wang said.

“We want to start a club that can benefit both their students and ours,” he said. “That’s a product of a more in-depth disciplinary collaboration with Chinese universities.”

The 1+2+1 program’s success arose from solid commitment by the leadership at NAU, Palm said.

“The university was willing to put resources into something that wasn’t a sure thing,” Palm said. “I think that’s the kind of innovative spirit of leadership [at NAU], but also the innovative spirit of our center has really prioritized this kind of collaboration and really led to it being successful, at least in large part because they were willing to invest and be willing to take a risk.”

NAU is well-known for the 1+2+1 program and one of its top U.S. partners, he said.

There are 1,400 international students at NAU this year, 450 of whom are Chinese and about 200 of whom are participants in the 1+2+1 program. International students contribute about $717 million annually to the Arizona economy — $32 million just in Coconino County — and NAU exchange students support about 600 to 700 jobs, Palm said.

Part of the 1+2+1 program’s growth is due to a new recruitment model that creates cohorts of students from specific majors, contributing to what Palm calls “disciplinary diversification.” The model encourages international students, as a group, to choose from a broader range of academic subjects.

“If we bring a lot of diversity of students but they all go into mechanical engineering, that can be challenging,” Palm said. “But if we bring a diversification of students by country but also by discipline, it creates a more well-rounded and diverse campus in that sense.”

Most recently, the program has seen a boom in students seeking NAU’s Creative Media and Film degree.

“We work with a partner, a university that has a film program, and their students were interested in coming and studying our Creative Media and Film degree,” Palm said. “[It’s] been great to kind of move away from a lot of the… traditionally business and engineering disciplines that we’ve collaborated with in China.”

Disciplinary diversification is just one element of the program’s future, and Palm said he hopes to develop more cohorts in an even wider range of programs. Wang said he wants to see more opportunities for gifted international students in the university’s accelerated graduate programs.

“For the existing programs that we have right now, they are all two-degree programs at an undergraduate level; we are also looking into collaboration on a graduate level,” Wang said. “Students will finish their undergraduate degree and go back to China and then return to NAU and finish or advance their degree at NAU within a shorter period of time.”

Graham Bosch

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