SOUTH KINGSTOWN — When Andy Rithiphong, a senior at the University of Rhode Island and a Woonsocket native, walks across the stage Sunday to receive his diploma, he will represent the product of the dedication his professors have given to their teaching in a more unique way than most. Rithiphong is one of three URI students to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Chinese, an achievement he holds as an especially personal accomplishment.
"It amazes me each moment when I think about being one of the first people to graduate from URI with a degree in Chinese,” he said. “Unfortunately, the other two are currently in China, so I will be the only one representing our major on that walk.”
“I never thought I would be one of those kids who could make history at URI,” he added. “When I first began, I had no idea that [the Chinese major] was the beginning point to a path for such an amazing accomplishment.”
The Chinese program at URI was first introduced in 2008 and a major in the language was created in 2010. URI’s language program has been regarded by its students and alumni as a quality educational experience with offerings in major languages such as French, German, and Spanish, as well as more specialized ones, namely Arabic, Latin, and now Chinese. Rithiphong was able to take advantage of the emerging opportunities that the Chinese program has developed.
“When I first learned Chinese, it started as a simple interest,” he said. “I started studying and became so interested that I wanted to go further. I decided to do the summer school where you learn on campus and then go to China for a month.”
URI also serves as home base for The Confucius Institute, which complements the University's Chinese program by fostering collaboration and outreach among outside educational institutions in the U.S. and China. The Institute aims to develop healthy global relationships by educating students about the Chinese language, as well as providing a global perspective of the 21st century.
“China is an emerging world power, and the relationship with China is one of the most important for the U.S.,” said Dr. Wayne Wenchao He, director of the Institute. “If our students do not keep up with this new trend in the global affairs, they will fall behind, and we do not want our children to lose at the starting point while competing with their peers across the country and the world.”
“Learning the Chinese language and culture strengthens their future competing power in the job market and career development,” he added. “We are preparing a new generation of global citizens.”
The Institute also augments the work of other global instruction programs at URI, such as the International Engineering Program, which allows students to double major with a language alongside engineering.
“As a new member of the Language Department, Chinese has been developing fast,” said He. “Now there are about 350 students taking Chinese every year, and [URI] is one of the very few universities which receive support from both U.S. and Chinese governments to develop its programs.”
URI's Chinese program, alongside the Confucius Institute, offers student exchange programs with Chinese universities, and partners with the Chinese Language Flagship Program (CLFP), established in 2008 through more than a million dollars in federal grants, to teach Chinese language and culture in public schools throughout Rhode Island. Rithiphong has been one of many students to travel and learn in China, having visited there three times.
“China is the first foreign country I’ve visited and, when you go to a new country, you are immersed in its culture and life being,” said Rithiphong. “When you learn a language in a classroom, it is the language only on the text and table. When you are studying in the country, you grasp a higher rate of learning and understand the culture from where this language is derived from, which helps in your proficiency. You can see many things connected in their language to their lifestyle.”
“I traveled to Shanghai and Beijing, as well as to many small cities, farms, and rural towns,” he added. “You can see from traveling that every part has a different tweak in its lifestyle, and you can see how their culture can be derived from that as well. Every region and district has a different way of life.”
Being one of three students to enter into the Chinese major, Rithiphong’s educational experience did come with challenges.
“The difficulty of the program was a challenge, as our professors made us speak Chinese at all times,” said Rithiphong. “We are not just studying Chinese every semester, but during the summer and winter breaks here for two weeks, and [students] lived together in a house where we were authorized to just speak in the language itself.
“As much as [learning Chinese intensely] was excruciating, it built so much character in all of us and prepared us for our future endeavors. I was well prepared when we got to China; our professors care so much for us and pushed us to accelerate at a level that we never thought we could.”
Although he will move on once the URI diploma is in his hand, Rithiphong hopes the Chinese program continues to thrive and provide current and prospective students with a rich experience of the county’s language and culture.
“This program just started three years ago, and I have already seen it progress to such a monumental thing,” said Rithiphong. “It is a lot different now than what it was in the first year when I started. In the future, I am wishing for our program to be something that can grasp attention throughout our nation.”
“We are a small, but growing nation of young scholars who are really going out there, taking what we major in and making it global,” he added. “We are making [URI’s Chinese program] well known not just to our schools, but to schools all around the U.S. and even to Chinese schools.”