Leanna Brown and Shannon Anicas will tell you that they fell in love with Chinese culture and language right here on campus — at UA's Confucius Institute.
When the opportunity arose to spend a year in China immersed completely in its language, traditions and literature, both embraced the challenge. They arrived at Henan University in Kaifeng in fall 2011 ready to learn and find common ground with the people they met along the way.
Leanna Brown, left, and a classmate, far right, met people from Tibet during a visit to Chinese Minorities Park in Beijing.
The journey was made possible through the UA Confucius Institute Henan Scholarship, which is offered through the Confucius Institute, in collaboration with Henan University.
As Americans, Brown and Anicas were assigned to the international dormitory, where they met students from several countries. Many, like the UA students, were enrolled in classes to learn to read, write and speak Chinese. In addition to traditional age students, there were individuals who had come to study out of a personal interest or to advance in their careers. With most, even with those who knew some English or Chinese, communication was challenging in the beginning.
Brown, who quickly made friends with a Japanese student, laughs as she recalls their early conversations in a blend of languages they called "Chinglish." "When all else failed, we used Google Translate," says Brown, a graduate of Maple Heights High School who began taking Chinese language classes soon after arriving at UA.
Shannon Anicas takes in the cherry blossoms at a park in Kaifeng.
The honors student, who had started out as a culinary arts major, says she became interested in the business side. Now she is earning an interdisciplinary degree in international business and hospitality management.
Anicas, a native of Kiln, Miss., was a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy, and lived in cities around the United States before settling in Ohio and earning an associate degree in medical assisting. Along the way, she also began freelance writing and enrolled at UA to major in communication.
"The 2008 Beijing Olympics reignited my interest in China, and once I started taking some classes, I just wanted to do and learn more," says Anicas, who became a student assistant at the Confucius Institute. "I started studying the language in fall 2009. It is tremendously hard, but so rewarding."
She has since combined her interests by pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in Chinese culture, business and communication. She will graduate in December.
Like most adult students, Anicas had been hesitant to return to school, and then felt unsure about studying abroad at age 40. She needn’t have worried.
"I was completely accepted," recalls Anicas. "I didn’t expect it, but it was very nice not to be treated differently. The Chinese respect age."
She not only adapted to life in the dormitory, but also came to love the ancient city of Kaifeng.
"It has 5 million people, which is a small town by China standards, and yet it has a very rural feeling. There are gorgeous old trees and greenery, and many ornate buildings."
Leanna Brown visits the Great Wall of China with Zaya, a classmate from Mongolia.
Brown, too, enjoyed the city and visiting the sights, such as Millennium City Park. With her culinary background, she looked forward to sampling the many new dishes she found offered by the food vendors right outside Henan's gates.
The UA students had opportunities to visit other cities and their class often had field trips on Saturdays.
"I loved Hong Kong and Beijing — they had restaurants from all over the world," says Brown.
Still, there were adjustments to make, particularly for Brown, who had never traveled out of the country, or been away from family for so long.
"I got homesick, it was horrible, I admit it," says Brown with a smile. "I came home for Christmas and stayed until classes began in February."
As an African American woman, she experienced sharp cultural differences firsthand.
"The Chinese are very curious and they don't think it is rude to stare or ask personal questions," says Brown. "They wanted to touch my hair and, everywhere I went, they wanted to take pictures with me. When I would say yes, more people would come up and form a line. They all wanted a picture with me. I had to say no, as politely as I could, or I would not have had time to see or do anything when I left the campus.
Shannon Anicas is surrounded by young students in a Kaifeng classroom, where she taught English during her stay.
"At first, I wondered why," Brown continues. "Then, I felt angry. But I came to accept that it was just part of their culture. They notice everything, and they do ask questions, but it's because they are making an effort to get to know you and learn about your family. Family is very important to them."
One aspect of the culture Brown quickly came to appreciate was the simple approach to daily life.
"The Chinese live in the moment," she explains. "They take things more slowly and they enjoy what they are doing, while they are doing it."
The perspective gained by Brown and Anicas is exactly the goal of the study abroad experience, notes Holly Harris Bane, UA's associate vice president for strategic initiatives and partnerships.
"For University of Akron graduates to be competitive in the global economy of the 21st century, they need a global education," says Harris Bane. "Over the last three years, 10 UA students have had the opportunity to study in China through generous scholarships from the Confucius Institute. The latest students to return will enter the marketplace with a broader and deeper understanding of our world."
In fact, Brown and Anicas are planning for careers in both countries.
Anicas, who hopes to improve others' understanding of Chinese culture, whether in a corporate or educational setting, would also like to teach in China.
"I want to teach English in Kaifeng," says Anicas, who taught English and Art of Public Speaking classes at Henan, and tutored the children of migrant workers, while pursuing her own studies.
Meanwhile, Brown hopes to begin her career in the hotel industry in the United States and then transfer to China. "My dream goal is to one day open a restaurant in America, and then open one in China."