China is in the news a lot these days. After centuries of being what Napoleon called a “sleeping giant,” the mammoth country is waking up and the rest of the world is taking notice. For retired Minnesota State University Professor Carl Egan, China has become his home away from home.
Egan taught at MSU for 25 years and was the first director of the university’s construction management program, a program he also helped develop. Back in 1999, Egan received mail from People to People International, a group that works toward enhancing international understanding and friendship.
People to People encourages members to exchange ideas and experiences through educational and cultural activities. Egan learned that the group was putting together a delegation to visit China, specifically the Three Gorges Dam project, a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River. Egan’s interest was two-fold: with a master’s degree in urban planning, he wanted to see firsthand the steps the Chinese government had taken to relocate over 1 million people. Also, having worked in the construction industry for several years, he wanted to see the largest construction project in modern times in person.
During that trip, the president of Chongqing University extended an invitation to become a visiting lecturer.
“Naturally, I obtained some contact information and started corresponding with the university after returning to Mankato,” he said.
After his initial visit to China, Egan continued to go back. He began teaching as a visiting professor in 2005. He is now on his sixth visit as a visiting professor and his 10th trip to China. He teaches professional English and construction management.
Professional English teaches students how to organize and write a master’s thesis as well as how to write articles for professional journals. Since Egan was instrumental in establishing the construction management program at MSU, sharing his knowledge about the subject with his Chinese students has been a good fit.
Although the two schools are thousands of miles apart, teaching at MSU and Chongqing University are similar in many ways.
“Students are students,” Egan said. “They all worry about their assignments, grading methods and exams.”
Like students at MSU, the students Egan teaches in China bring food and drinks to their classes. He notes that one difference between the two cultures is that MSU students prefer highly caffeinated drinks while Chongqing students are more likely to bring in bottled water or tea.
The students at Chongqing University also tend to arrive for class well before it actually starts. Egan describes his Chinese students as very attentive, polite and respectful. Students routinely volunteer to help with the projector used in class and the computer for PowerPoint presentations. When class is over, several students usually stay after and offer assistance with cleaning up the room, turning off the lights and electronic equipment and making sure the door is locked.
“My Chinese students have always been very serious about their education and how they conduct themselves,” he said.
Egan has observed that the students he teaches at Chongqing University show a great sense of responsibility and respect for their teachers. Egan has received many letters from students where that respect is openly conveyed. One student, Conrad Chen, wrote: “Thank you for all the assistance you have provided. ... I really appreciate the information you have given. Thank you so much. I appreciate your generosity.”
Such letters are “typical,” according to Egan, as well as completely sincere. Most of his students are from farming villages and do not have a lot of money. To be able to go to college is a privilege, a fact his students appear to be well aware of.
Living in China is quite different than living in Mankato or in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Egan’s current hometown. Egan points out that he has spent most of his time in Chongqing, a city with a population of around 5.5 million. Chongqing has many universities and is obviously much larger and busier than southern Minnesota or Alabama.
Egan believes that the relationship between the United States and China is good but that it could be better. China has a huge amount of oversees students with over 1 million studying abroad. Most of those students want to study in the United States.
“If the reverse happens, if more U.S.A. students wanted to study in China, it will do wonders for furthering a healthy, vital and rewarding friendship between the two countries,” Egan said.