Recruiting students

ZHANGJIAJIE, HUNAN — This week I learned that colleges in China have the same problem as colleges in the USA. They need to pull students in to stay viable.

Students in China choose their majors before entering university. So, each college in a uni (we call them “departments” in the States) would like to maximize the chances of getting sufficient enrollment. It’s not feasible to visit all the high schools in western Hunan on recruiting drives, but relatively easy to visit the preparatory college here in Zhangjiajie to attract some candidates.

That’s what ten of us teachers and students from Jishou U did. We did two hours of marketing to about 200 students midway between high school and university: first our vice dean, then me (with student interpreter), then a sophomore from our college, then a Q&A. There were also two Powerpoint presentations, one by Vice Dean Song Jie and the other by sophomore Helen Xiao.

Our greatest hits: our graduates’ 98% employment rate, the foreign teacher who can speak a little Chinese, the sophomore girl who has broadcast the weather on municipal TV, the dean who has met President Hu Jintao.

To be honest, I was surprised and just a little pleased to be asked to come along on this junket. Apparently, I am considered to be a big draw for the college. Besides, I could visit my friend and former colleague, Connie Hu, who was mostly responsible for me being here in the first place.

Oh, and I got to travel at company expense.

Travel here seems to get easier every year. There is now a faster train (T-class, meaning express) between Jishou and Changsha, which also stops at Zhangjiajie. It shaves 30 minutes off that trip, and the seats are much more comfortable than the usual slow trains. We left mid-afternoon Monday and pulled into Zhangjiajie just before dinner.

We took a city bus to the university’s campus there, where the deans of the preparatory college met us. This college is just what you’d think it is, a program to get under-performing students up to speed for the university. Typically, their gaokao scores are a little low for automatic admission to Jishou U. All seven students visiting the college with us are graduates of this program. They are some of the sharpest students I have, so the gaokao is a poor measure of performance, IMHO.

We went to dinner, where the deans and I shared some baijiu. (He of course ordered the high test stuff, 108 proof. I should have asked for beer.) After dinner, he (now quite loosened up) told us about his life and career. What I could understand sounded like a Dickens novel.

Mister Pu’s mother died when he was 5. His father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, suspected of being a capitalist. Rather than live with his dad, Pu was sent to live with relatives. The youngest among several cousins, he had to do a lot of housework even as a little boy, and was treated more as a servant than a member of the family.

Despite it all, he was able to do well in school and attended university in Shandong. He was a businessman for a time, then entered teaching. Finally, he became dean of the prep college.

Though I couldn’t understand their local language (yeah, they were not speaking Chinese, hence I was more lost than usual), I could tell he and the students in our party were genuinely fond of each other.

After he finished his tales, we teachers and students went out for after dinner snacks and beers. This is a unique custom here. Eat (and maybe drink) a lot at dinner, then around 8:30, go out for snacks and more drinks. Suffice it to say, by the time 10:00 rolled around we were all feeling quite happy. And full. (And the grilled fish was really damn good!)

Fortunately, we were not expected to be coherent until that afternoon. I spent an enjoyable three hours over lunch with Connie, whom I had not seen for about a year, though we live just two hours apart. We had a lot to talk about, including my college trying to steal prospective students away from hers, the Foreign Language College.

Connie is a native of Zhangjiajie, and came to the USA to be a Chinese teacher in 2006-2007. We were co-workers for that year, and at the end of her visit, I asked her if I could teach at her university. She got the wheels turning in Jishou, and to make a long story short, that’s why I am here recruiting students for my latest employer.

Asking her that question four years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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