Rockford native finds a different kind of university life in China

Chronicle Media

Rockford native an NIU student Bryce Johnson is living in an international dormitory at Renmin University of China in Beijing, pioneering a new double-degree option in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program.

Rockford native an NIU student Bryce Johnson is living in an international dormitory at Renmin University of China in Beijing, pioneering a new double-degree option in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program.

University life this academic year is different, to say the least, for Rockford native Bryce Johnson.

For one, his classes are smaller—nine students tops. Instead of peers hailing from Chicago, its suburbs and downstate Illinois, they come from hometowns in Germany, Pakistan, Malaysia, Mongolia and China.

Then there’s the food. Sure, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are nearby. But Johnson, a Northern Illinois University student, is more likely to dig into a bowl of rice, dumplings or spicy noodles—or maybe even try one of those donkey burgers selling like hotcakes on campus. The meals are cheap, too, typically under $3.

On weekends, Johnson and classmate Jeanna Ballard, have countless options. They can enjoy nightlife in a city of 21 million people, trek into the mountains or visit historic sites, some dating back more than a millennium.

You’ve probably guessed that they aren’t studying on campus in DeKalb.

Instead, the NIU students are living in an international dormitory at Renmin University of China in Beijing, pioneering a new double-degree option in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program.

“It’s exciting, while at the same time overwhelming, to be the first to pave the path for NIU students to study at Renmin,” says Ballard, a 23-year-old native of small-town Gilberts, Ill. in far northern Kane County.

NIU’s MPA program is perennially top rated, with U.S. News and World Report ranking it fifth nationally for city management and urban policy and 12th for public finance and budgeting. The program also has been a stalwart of Illinois good government, counting about one-third of all Illinois city managers among its alumni.

But now Illinois’ gold standard of local government expertise is going decidedly international. And the double-degree arrangement between NIU and Renmin is a shining example of this global direction.

Not only are NIU students studying in Beijing, but their Chinese counterparts will soon be in classrooms in DeKalb, with a handful of Renmin MPA students expected to arrive on campus next fall.

At the end of the three-year program, NIU students will earn an international MPA degree from Renmin, a top-ranked Chinese university, and an MPA with a specialization in Comparative Public Service from NIU. Renmin students also will earn degrees from both universities.

“I’ve always been interested in international travel, and I feel like this was too good an opportunity to pass up,” says Johnson, a 24-year-old Rockford native who earned his undergraduate degree at Augustana College. “China is a large global presence, and to see the world from another perspective is a gift.”

Both Johnson and Ballard are picking up some of the Mandarin language, but their classes are taught in English. And they are gaining not just one new global perspective but many. Ballard’s network of new friends includes students from Slovakia, Finland, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, France, Algeria, Russia, China, Germany, Hong Kong, the UK, Lebanon, the Netherlands and the Democratic of the Congo.

“This exchange program provides the opportunity to adapt a new mindset toward analyzing and solving problems by being exposed to new cultures, ideas and beliefs,” Ballard says.

Policy issues she studied in Illinois on topics such as fiscal management, economic development and the environment “are not unique to the United States,” she says. “I think the double degree program allows students to conduct more in-depth comparative analyses.”

Kurt Thurmaier, founding director of the School of Public and Global Affairs (SPGA) and Public Administration chair, says the exchange with Renmin is just one aspect of his department’s global direction and an example of the types of opportunities fostered by the SPGA.

“Our strategic goal is to have a double-degree exchange program on each continent, not including Antarctica,” he says.

His department has already established similar double-degree arrangements with a second Chinese institution, Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, as well as with the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University in Thailand, and is working to establish agreements with universities in Kenya, Mexico and Australia.

In NIU’s more typical two-year public administration program, the curriculum is being globalized as well. It’s not so much a departure from the program’s bread-and-butter focus on local government management as it is a recognition of the long reach of globalization.

Graduates of the NIU MPA program typically move on to posts ranging from community planners and city administrators to managers with non-governmental organizations and state and federal agencies.

“The 21st century public administrator needs to understand the global contexts of public management,” Thurmaier says. “Administrators can’t operate nowadays without being influenced by global events. Public managers are now directly working with their counterparts in other countries.”

As an example, Thurmaier points to managers within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who are working with their international counterparts on laws and regulations surrounding climate change, water treatment and air quality.

“We still want to be No. 1 in local government management in the United States,” Thurmaier says. “But, with countries around the world decentralizing powers, we also want to be the premier university internationally for people seeking to learn how to manage local governments and other public service agencies such as NGOs.”

Going global requires recruitment of students from around the world.

Toward that end, Thurmaier, MPA student adviser Denise Burchard and Professor Aaron Deslatte recently traveled to China and Thailand to cement academic ties and meet with potential students. The MPA program already boasts students from the countries of Russia, Moldova and Namibia here on Fulbright Foreign Student grants.

Meanwhile, NIU students Ballard and Johnson will help recruit Renmin University peers interested in studying at NIU. They also will identify challenges and any program wrinkles, to smooth the landing for the next exchange students from NIU.

During their first month, for example, it took some getting used to the culture shock, as well as the bureaucracy involved in simple tasks such as getting a student ID card.

“You have to learn quickly how to adapt to the new culture and how to rely on and trust yourself,” Ballard says.

Despite a few bumps in the road, both she and Johnson are thrilled with their learning and cultural experiences, which have included an overnight hike with other students to the Great Wall of China.

“I’m feeling more and more comfortable as time passes,” Johnson says. “I hope that the experiences I garner make it smoother for future students who would be interested in trying it out. I am proud to be one of the first to do it.”

–Rockford native finds a different kind of university life in China–