Lessons from China: Education is Human

By Tricia Seifert

Recently Jeff Burrow invited our readers from around the world to share the great work they are doing to support student success by submitting an ACPA sponsored program proposal. There is so much we can learn from how colleagues in other contexts deal with issues and challenges in their work. In an effort to spark others to share, either in the form of a comment on our blog or with a sponsored program proposal, I would like to share my experience visiting and learning from staff who support students during my three week stay in China this past May.

I had the great fortune to spend time with colleagues at:

Beijing Normal University

Tsinghua University

Xi’an Jiaotong University

Yan’an University

Shanghai Jiaotong University

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

I don’t speak Mandarin but I quickly learned the words for teacher (laoshi) and student (xuesheng). Although I was often looked to as the teacher, I was as often the student and learned a tremendous amount from my hosts.

“Education is not eastern or western. Education is human.”

                                                                       – Malala Yousafzai*

I came across this quote after I returned from China but it captures my feelings and thoughts as I walked around these five university campuses. Beijing is more than 10,000 km from Toronto and yet I was struck by how the following three ideas appeared as powerful in one place as the other.

  1. Give peers a chance.

At one of the institutions where I toured, an undergraduate student served as tour guide, interpreter and college ambassador. As we walked through the hallway of this residential college (shuyuan), our student guide shared that undergraduate and graduate students are key members of the shuyuan’s advising committee, which provides voice for student initiatives and appeals at both the residential and academic college levels. Our guide also enthusiastically showed us spaces, within the shuyuan, where more advanced students volunteer as peer mentors and academic tutors. In this particular instance, the Society of Mentors had recently celebrated their fifth anniversary and received an honour from the central government for their work orienting new students to the college.

As I stood in the courtyard of this residential college, thousands of miles from Canada, I was struck by the similarity between our tour guide and the many students I’ve met collecting data as part of the Supporting Student Success research project. In Canada as well as in China, students beam with pride when they share examples of how their peers supporting other students to be successful in their postsecondary pursuits. Whether it is the Sophs at Western University who are instrumental on move-in day and beyond or students involved in the Peer Helper Program at the University of Guelph, we have met countless students who take great pride in exclaiming how students help students on their campus.

What has been affirmed in both eastern and western contexts is that peer culture is powerful. So the question that begs to be asked is, “how are staff and faculty recognizing and valuing positive peer culture and supporting programs in which students help students?” This is not a rhetorical question; please “leave a comment” in the area below so that all who read the blog can learn from the good work being done at your institution.

  1. Students are whole people and have to be supported holistically.

Across public institutions in China, there are literally thousands of staff members who hold the title, fudaoyuan or “advisor” in English. There are so many fudaoyuan because every student is assigned to one and each fudaoyuan advises several classes of students (each class has about 30 students). The fudaoyuan advises students in terms of progress in their academic program of study, career exploration and opportunities, and personal well-being and development. The fudaoyuan also take an active role in students’ moral and ideological education. The fudaoyuan are tasked with knowing and caring for the students in their charge. Although there are elements of a fudaoyuan’s work that feels parental, the fudaoyuan are expected to know their students and advise them as whole people. I remember speaking with a group of fudaoyuan at one institution and thinking how their work reminded me of the work of a “family doctor” – someone who was familiar with my overall health and wellness and could refer when necessary to a specialist.

Certainly, as higher education institutions have grown, student affairs and services divisions have spread out literally and figuratively across postsecondary campuses. To students, our offices might appear to be many specialist doctors – each focusing on their specific area. I recall during data collection for the Supporting Student Success research project visiting a campus where student affairs and services functions operated out of 17 locations on campus.

Interestingly, on the second visit to this institution, the many locations had been condensed considerably and embodied more of the “one stop shop” model in which students can register for classes, pay tuition, pick up financial aid, and perhaps meet with an academic advisor all in one place. Beyond the idea of a “one stop shop” location is the “family doctor” model that seems similar to the fudaoyuan approach I saw in China. The University of British Columbia has pioneered this notion within the Canadian context through their development of enrolment services professionals. Rather than being shuttled from one office to another, ESPs provide personalized support and a single point of contact to introduce students to the network of support available on campus.

Again, in eastern and western contexts, despite growing populations of students, there are opportunities to create positions (fudaoyuan or ESPs) within our organization and spaces within our organization’s physical landscape where students and their needs and development are recognized and addressed holistically. This blog is a space where people can share ideas and learn from others. Please “leave a comment” in the area below and share how you and your colleagues advise students from a holistic perspective.

  1. Supporting students requires professional development for staff.

Currently, China has few graduate programs preparing students to take on student affairs and services roles, whether these are fudaoyuan positions or in a more centralized student services functional area like counselling or career development. There was great interest in learning more about the kinds of coursework that graduate students in the U.S. and Canada would complete.

But beyond specific kinds of credentials, the work of fudaoyuan was acknowledged for the wide range of skills and abilities it requires. Not unlike the changing student demographics in North America, the student population in China is also changing. There was great interest in having more professional development opportunities to prepare staff members to work in meaningful, respectful and intentional ways with today’s student body.

Hearing the call for increased professional development could have been issued as quickly from colleagues in North America as China. Whether the challenges are around mental health or addressing internet usage and the role social media plays in creating community, having the professional support to gain knowledge and skills to address contemporary issues can not be overstated. This is an opportunity to crowdsource professional development (PD) opportunities that you have taken advantage of that you have found to be particularly useful. Please “leave a comment” in the space below so that others may learn from your PD experiences.



These three ideas illustrated that while the world is vast, many of education’s roots and values transcend geopolitical boundaries. Students in China like students in Canada and North America have the capacity and compassion to be positive peer role models and educators in their own right. Students are whole people and the challenges they face in their personal life may have direct bearing on their ability to do well in the classroom. Yet, it is difficult for staff to educate in a holistic fashion without continuing education, training and professional development.

The university campuses that I visited looked simultaneously nothing like a North American university (how many North American residence hall balconies serve as clothes lines?) and everything like a North American university (students studying at the library). It was a trip of embracing both the similar and the distinct.

Learning from colleagues in China ignited a passion to gain even greater insight about how student affairs and services work is practiced in different international contexts. In an effort to learn from each other, I invite you to “leave a comment” of what you have learned from your international colleagues below. I close by re-iterating the invitation to share your good work and contribute to the global conversation. Submit a sponsored program proposal to ACPA’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development (proposals are due Sept. 4, 2014) or NASPA’s International Education Knowledge Community (proposals are due Sept. 5, 2014).

*Malala Yousafzai is a young girl who stood up for girl’s educational rights in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban. She lived and has written a poignant autobiography titled, “I Am Malala



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