Between Two Worlds

The unique exchange between Saint Mary’s and Beijing Normal University – Zhuhai is creating extraordinary opportunities for students, and professors like Dr. Cecilia Qiu

(L - R) Vice-President, Academic & Research, Dr. Malcolm Butler; Dr. Yue (Cecilia) Qiu; Dean of Arts Dr. Margaret MacDonald

(L - R) Vice-President, Academic & Research, Dr. Malcolm Butler; Dr. Yue (Cecilia) Qiu; Dean of Arts Dr. Margaret MacDonald

"We start from hello."

That’s how Dr. Yue Qiu—or as her Canadian colleagues and students know her, “Cecilia” Qiu—describes bridging the cultural gap between her Chinese and Canadian students.

“We start slow,” she says, “with the basics, find our common ground, and slowly come to explore each others’ cultures.”

Dr. Qiu is a professor of linguistics at Beijing Normal University – Zhuhai (BNUZ), and last semester, she became the first BNUZ faculty member to arrive at Saint Mary’s as part of a unique exchange between the two institutions. A key part of the new partnership is an exciting “2+2 Program”, which sees BNUZ students take the last two years of their degrees at Saint Mary’s. It’s the first such agreement in Canada between an international university and an Arts faculty.

Though this was her first time in Canada, Dr. Qiu already has some experience bridging cultures. As a professor at BNUZ since 2008, she’s worked with students from many of China’s different provinces, many of whom speak different languages (Dr. Qiu’s PhD was focused on China’s minority languages) and are studying far from home. “Even in China,” she says, “there are cross-cultural differences.”

Adjusting to Canadian life, of course, is a challenge on a different scale. Some of the differences are minor—the cold Canadian winter is a shock to students from balmy southern China, and Saint Mary’s can seem surprisingly intimate for students from a sprawling campus like BNUZ. Other challenges are more substantial.

“Students in Canada tend to have a greater spirit of independence,” says Dr. Qiu, “and it can be a challenge to relate to that. And I also think the BNUZ students are forced to become more diligent in their time here. Learning in a new language is a challenge, and you’ll see groups of Chinese and Canadian students together, collaborating in the library until late at night, figuring out how to communicate across that barrier with each other. It’s wonderful.”

And it’s not just Canadian culture they’re exposed to. With Canada’s most international student population, representing more than 100 countries, BNUZ students see at Saint Mary’s more people of different nationalities in one place than they likely ever have before. “Students in my class are from China, Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Mongolia, and other countries. It’s quite incredible!”

The diversity of the Saint Mary’s campus was among the first things that struck Kaiyi Lu, a 20-year-old Linguistics student from BNUZ.

BNUZ students at a luncheon in December 2017 for Dr. Qiu, before she returned to China.

BNUZ students at a luncheon in December 2017 for Dr. Qiu, before she returned to China.

 

“Even the English I hear is different,” she says. “Some teachers speak with different accents that I didn’t expect, and the students are immigrants from many countries, and different cultures within Canada. They all bring their own culture to class, and different perspectives.”

The cultural exchange works both ways. Before taking Dr. Qiu’s Introductory Chinese course at Saint Mary’s last semester, Saint Mary’s student Branden Melloy participated in a summer exchange program, travelling to BNUZ.

The 25-year-old, Lunenburg-bred Melloy had never travelled out of Canada before, and his impressions of life in Zhuhai and on the BNUZ campus couldn’t be more vivid: “It’s tropical, humid, these incredible-sounding birds all over the place, snapping turtles in the brush. It’s bright and green and beautiful, and surrounded by mountains. It’s pretty amazing.”

Just as Chinese students at Saint Mary’s encounter unfamiliar customs, so did Melloy and other Saint Mary’s students. Some were simply differences in teaching or communication style, such as learning WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social-media platform that students use to communicate with teachers, TAs, and almost anyone else. But the program was structured to ensure that BNUZ and Saint Mary’s students bridged that gap personally—Yu was Melloy’s TA and language partner in China, and their partnership benefitted both. Yu helped ease Melloy’s cultural transition to campus life at BNUZ, and Yu was able to learn from Melloy as much as possible about Saint Mary’s before her journey here last semester. “And,” she says, “I was finally able to practice more English. I had learned a lot of theory, but just talking to someone helped me a lot.”

More demanding, to Melloy, were classes that to Canadian students could feel like lengthy, formal exercises—a more traditionally Chinese style of education. Melloy says Dr. Qiu’s classes were something of an exception, however: “She’s very humorous, warm, and encouraging to everyone.”

Melloy’s experience transcended academics, as well. “Exploring Zhuhai, taking trains and boats into nearby cities and the countryside…it expanded my sense of what’s possible.”

For all her experience, Dr. Qiu echoes that sentiment: “Coming here, the students and professors a rereminded that the world is so big. This is a great chance to open our minds, see different ideas, and do things we never thought we would.”