Indiana State University Newsroom

Contrasting China: Students explore country in 18-day study trip

July 3, 2012

Alex Rodie sat still in the wooden chair with his hands resting on his knees. Calm, in his khaki shorts and gray T-shirt, he gazed back at the inquisitive faces of about 40 Chinese high school students in Dalian, China.

So far, he'd answered their questions about his favorite music, politics and Occupy Wall Street. Then a girl stood, signaling she had a question.

"What do you think about only 11 boys in our class?" she said.

"I think it's lucky for the boys, I guess," Rodie said without a pause, causing the girls to giggle and the boys to laugh.

Rodie, one of 15 Indiana State University students, visited the High School Affiliated to Liaoning Normal University as part of an 18-day study abroad trip to China. On the trip, which focused on environmentally and culturally sustainable local economic development, the university students explored the economic, political and environmental issues while cruising the Yangtze River above the Three Gorges Dam, experiencing the jostling growing pains in the redevelopment of Liaoning Province and witnessing life in other areas of China.

The students also met with many Chinese, including high school students at ISU's partner institution.

"In my opinion, it's always a good thing for students in different countries to interact," said Rodie, a senior history major from West Terre Haute. "It's beneficial to find the common ground between both."

Such interactions can be as important as studying the politics, economics and environment of China, according to the professors who organized the trip.

"Quite frankly, tensions are building between the U.S. and China right now at the political level between leaders," said Mike Chambers, Indiana State political science department chair. "If we want to eventually overcome such tensions, one way to do so is to get people from both countries in contact so that we're not seeing each other as potential adversaries, which is what's happening at the governmental level."

For the U.S. to avoid a new Cold War, Chambers said it's important for people to see the common interests between the two countries, which would promote "more friendship and less hostility."

ISU students landed in Shanghai and immediately began experiencing one of the largest cities in the world with its estimated 28 million residents. With a soundtrack of blaring, beeping car horns that rise in cacophony before subsiding to a din, Indiana State students maneuvered among the tides of people in the old and new parts of the city, comparing and contrasting. The Huangpu River divides the city between old and new and a night time cruise on the river brilliantly illustrated the new side's towers for the students. Thousands of Chinese crowded on the west bank of the river in an area known as the Bund to take pictures of the illuminated skyline of the new Pudong area on the east side of the river.

"I was really overwhelmed because I had never seen a city that big before," said Kyle Wright, a master's in business administration student from Terre Haute. "I knew it was big but I didn't know it was that big."

Construction cranes, joked to be the national bird of China, perch over Shanghai and much of China as skyscrapers rise from farmland. Students experienced it first on the bus ride from the Shanghai airport into the city.

"On the left side of the road we would see apartment buildings and mass factories being built overnight and to our right we would see small abandoned houses," said Mark Broeker, a senior political science and public administration major from Rockport.

Students and professors then flew northwest to explore what helps light the cities and its environmental impact. After much debate between government officials, environmentalists and engineers, the Chinese government built the Three Gorges Dam, which stretches about a mile across the Yangtze River and houses 36 turbines to generate 3 percent of the country's electricity needs. Initially, planners thought it would provide 10 percent of the country's need, but despite adding turbines, the dam hasn't been able to keep up with the growing demand.

"It's kind of the world's biggest environmental experiment: let's block a really major river and see what happens," said Stephen Aldrich, assistant professor of geography.

"It's one thing just to talk about China, talk about the rise of China, talk about China building big, huge dams to generate electricity or to control floods," Chambers said. "It's another to come here and see it: to be on the reservoir that's been built up behind the dam and to see the dam and how massive it is."

In addition to providing electricity it also controls flooding that routinely claimed lives and improves transportation for cargo boats.

"The dam helps prevent flooding, but it also makes the Yangtze navigable and, again, because there is a large important economic base of China along that river basin, it is really important that they be able to move goods and services up and down the river with some ease and get around at a low cost," said John Conant, economic department chair.

With the river's water level 100 meters higher than previously, the government had to rebuild towns higher up mountains and relocate about 1.4 million people. It also has had environmental consequences, including fatal rock slides, the decline of river fish and poorer water quality. Some scientists have also theorized the dam and increased water pressure could cause additional earthquakes in the earthquake-prone region.

And yet on a cruise up the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, the students and professors also witnessed the beauty of the paper-fan-folded mountains with new towns and houses. Erin Pugh, a master's in business administration student from Terre Haute, said the cruise would have made it on her bucket list, if she had ever created one.

"It was beautiful, just waking up in the morning and seeing the mountains. We were sailing up a river and you could look out a window, you could go stand on the edge of the ship and just look out and you could see endless mountains and the beautiful river," she said. "It was an eye opening experience, something that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The journey also took the students and professors through rural China and to Dalian and Shenyang in Liaoning Province to see the redevelopment in an area Aldrich likened to parts of Indiana.

"It is China's rust belt," he said. "It was formerly heavily industrial and now it is trying to repurpose itself to become a more service-based or high-value-added economic engine."

"The northeast has fallen a little bit behind the more southern parts of China so the Chinese Central Government is attempting to revitalize this area," Conant said. "The Liaoning Coastal Development Zone is the major aspect of that revitalization effort."

Students went from being overwhelmed in Dalian by the size of an oil tanker under construction at a shipyard to touring a fishing enterprise diversifying into real estate and ferries to navigating the city of Shenyang with 263 roads under construction.

"Before I came to China I thought it was going to be huge cities with lit up buildings that were all well developed and gorgeous," said Krystal Barnhorst, a sophomore athletic training major from Sunman. "But, actually, since being here I have seen that most of the cities are still developing. They are still really pretty, but a lot of them are still in the process of being built."

By flying the class to a country for the classroom, Indiana State's professors introduced their students to the multiple images of the rising power that is China.

"China's wealthy, but it's not wealthy. It's still a developing country despite how modern Shanghai is. It's a land of contrast," Chambers said. "In class, I talk about the wealth gaps, coastal versus inland, cities versus rural areas. The students can hear me talk about it, but now they can come here and see it for themselves. They can compare what the homes look like in Shanghai versus the homes out in the rural areas, and they can get a better sense of the contrasts that are China."

Photos: Rodie, senior history major from West Terre Haute, answers questions by high school students in Dalian, China. ISU Photo/ Tracy Ford Aldrich, assistant professor of geography, and Mark Broeker, senior political science and public administration major from Rockport, discuss the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford Wright, Alex Rodie and Mark Broeker view the Three Gorges on a cruise up the Yangtze River. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking Conant, economic department chair, takes in the view of the Three Gorges while cruising on the Yangtze River. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford Chambers, political science chair, and Erin Pugh discuss the Qing Dynasty and the Imperial Palace in Shenyang, China. ISU Photo/ Jennifer Sicking Chike learns about a Buddhist temple in Qian Shan National Park. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking Ayala and Krystal Barnhorst walk on the Great Wall at Juyongguan. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford

Writer/Contact: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Story Highlights

The university students explored the economic, political and environmental issues while cruising the Yangtze River, experiencing the jostling growing pains in the redevelopment of Liaoning Province and witnessing life in other areas of China.

See Also:

Indiana State students bring home 24 awards

Masterworks Chorale in concert

Deborah J. Curtis inaugurated as 12th president

Muyumba, Perrin receive President’s Medal

Aldrich, Fitch, Shelden honored with Dreiser Award

Inlow recognized with Caleb Mills Award