Past As Prologue: Chinese Students At NIU

Jan 15, 2014

Credit niu

Northern Illinois University’s President Doug Baker has called for increasing the school’s ties with Chinese institutions. That would include having more students from China on the DeKalb campus.  In one school within the university, a number are already here -- and have been for a long time.

Bill Goldenberg, Professor of Piano in the NIU School of Music, says he first got the idea of looking for students from China in the mid 1980s while talking to his old piano teacher from Juilliard.

“And he just mentioned once how Juilliard -- which is one of the best music schools in the world -- the piano department was approximately eighty percent from Asia, especially China, and also Korea and Japan.  I thought, wow, that’s interesting. Why don’t we try for some of the same students that might be going there?”

Goldenberg jokes that China has an especially large pool of talent because parents there require every child to take piano -- which might well be true.  When China announced it was relaxing its One Child policy recently, stock in Chinese piano companies shot up.  In any case, Goldenberg made some contacts and went there.  He enjoyed the experience so much, he began going to China on a regular basis, giving lessons and recitals, and encouraging students there to apply to NIU.

NIU Distinguished Teaching Professor of Piano William (Bill) Goldenberg
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Jingwen Fan is one of those students. Now in her fourth year at NIU, Fan got her master’s degree in piano performance in 2013 and is working on a second master’s in accompaniment. Fan says she knew language would be a big hurdle she would have to overcome. And it was extremely difficult. But it was another thing about life in the U-S that took her by surprise – what it means in this country to be independent.

“I need to do everything myself. Because when I’m back home, my parents taking care of all my life. I don’t know how to cook. I don’t know how to clean my house. I just know how to study and how to play the piano before.  But after I came here, I realize I need to take care of myself. So, I need to be very strong. I need to get very positive.”

JIngwen Fan
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Fan says the upside is what comes with that independence – more freedom to be who you want to be, and to change what that is if you wish. 

Jinyang Tian, a fifth-year student also working on a second master’s degree, agrees that language was the big hurdle.  She also found that she had to learn to do much more for herself, from household chores to paying bills. Sometimes, she says, the differences are smaller, but still take some getting used to.

“if you are studying in the U.S. you don’t need to raise your hand. You can just say “O.K., I am not understanding here,” in the middle of the class.  You can just tell the professor, I got a question here. That is not allowed in China.” 

JInyang Tian (right) with fellow piano student Yajing Li
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

It’s not only piano students who are coming to NIU these days. The School of Music now has students from China studying trombone and percussion, and the school’s administration is looking for opportunities with other instruments and disciplines.

Ray Alden is Vice President for NIU’s new Division of International Affairs. He says NIU has been working on potential collaborations with several Chinese universities.  Alden says NIU is looking to build on the relationships developed at the School of Music, as well as at the NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which for more than fifty years has brought individuals from that region to the campus.  Alden says the school has been formulating a list of what every student should be able to learn at NIU.

“And the very first one, as it happens, is global competencies: understanding that to compete in a global economy, you have to have to kind of understand different world views, different cultures, different perspectives.”

Ray Alden, Vice President for the NIU Division of International Affairs
Credit NIU / niu

Alden says the dream is that, sometime in the not-too-distant future, Chinese and American students could pursue programs that allow them to move back and forth seamlessly between NIU and partner universities in China. That would include students studying in many fields. Promoting a liberal education for all, including the arts, would play an important part.

Bill Goldenberg is very proud of his students for all they have accomplished musically and academically, and for how their efforts have contributed to the school and the community. But for him, it goes beyond that. 

“My feeling about this is that, by actually experiencing working and interacting and having relationships with people from other cultures, that’s really the way you find out that all human beings pretty much have the same concerns and the same feelings, and it’s one of the best ways that we can bring the world together.”

Fan, Tian and Alden might agree.

Bill Goldenberg in front of the lake in China that inspired the piece "Autumn Moon, Peaceful Lake" by Chinese composer Chen Peixun
Credit Bil Goldenberg