Schenectady County

Displaced Chinese settling in at SUNY

Still adjusting to American food and jet lag, 18 students from the region of China devastated by a m

Still adjusting to American food and jet lag, 18 students from the region of China devastated by a massive May 12 earthquake got their first comprehensive look at SUNY-Cobleskill on Wednesday since arriving Sunday at their new school.

The group is part of a special program that brought 150 Sichuan Province college students to various State University of New York campuses for two semesters. The 2,600-student Cobleskill campus is a big change from the four universities the group attends in China, where student populations range from 20,000 to 40,000.

“It’s different, but good,” said Chen Chen, who was perhaps already honing his skills in tourism management, the subject he is studying.

Keeping the group together among the greenhouses and livestock barns was sometimes a challenge as admissions counselor and recruiter Paul Dunn led them on the type of tour usually given to prospective students and their parents.

Wandering around the agricultural side of the campus, students acted like tourists themselves, snapping photos of each other as they posed around horses, heifers, goats, sheep, rabbits and even fish.

Several of the women sheltered themselves from the sun with umbrellas as they walked, a common practice throughout much of East Asia.

Although most of the students said their families and friends were spared from serious injury during the quake that killed at least 70,000 in the Sichuan region, memories of the massive temblor were fresh.

“I was sleeping when the building started shaking,” said Yu Haitao, a finance and economics student at Southwestern China University who has adopted the name Toby for his time in America.

“Everything on the walls was falling down,” chimed in fellow student Tang Ji. Students ran outside, “but the ground was very unreliable at that moment,” she said, in a carefully phrased understatement.

All of the 14 women and four men studying at Cobleskill for the next two semesters will be in bachelor’s degree programs, according to Jonathan Morrell, dean of enrollment management.

Many will be continuing studies they began in China in business programs on the Cobleskill campus. Based on preliminary plans, he said, eight are expected to study financial services, one travel and resort marketing, one culinary studies, three plant science, one agricultural business management, two agricultural biotechnology, one animal science, and one fisheries and aquaculture.

Tuesday was spent meeting with program counselors and going over academic records to work out the best class schedules and placement, Morrell said. After being selected for the SUNY program by Chinese officials, based on academic achievements and English proficiency, the students committed to return to China next May and engage in a period of national service in Sichuan to help restore the region after the earthquake, Gov. David Paterson and SUNY officials said last month in announcing the special program.

The cost of hosting the students is being underwritten by private donations, according to SUNY officials.

Wang Jiao, a biotechnology student from Sichuan Agricultural University, made her goals clear Wednesday.

“For me, it’s a good chance to learn more about my major,” she said. “When we go back we can help to rebuild our motherland.”

When the 7.9 magnitude quake struck, Wang said, “I was doing my experiments in the lab. It was horrible.” But she escaped unscathed.

Most of about 1,300 new students starting classes next week at SUNY-Cobleskill are arriving today, according to Morrell.

The Chinese group will join them in the regular orientation programs for new students, according to Kate Birchenough, a college spokeswoman.

The Cobleskill group is the second-largest contingent on a single campus among the 22 SUNY schools hosting Sichuan students.

Six students are attending the University at Albany.

All of the “China 150” arrived in New York City last Friday, toured the metropolis and got some rest.

On Sunday, SUNY-Cobleskill President Donald P. Zingale said he traveled to New York City to meet them at a reception in the Chinese Consulate, before college vans brought them upstate.

For the past few days in Cobleskill, college officials were working to make them feel at home and organize their studies.

The electronic message sign at the college entrance made that clear.

“Welcome Chinese friends,” the digital message flashed on the screen.

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