By Dennell Reynolds

American higher education has long been characterized by a spirit of international exchange, especially with Europe. But in the current century, American universities have stepped up their involvement abroad and their intake of international students, with an emphasis on expanding engagement with Asia. The 100,000 Strong Foundation (read more on page 23) symbolizes the current emphasis in American higher education and the nonprofit sector on bringing more US students of all ages to study in China specifically. In the reverse direction, Chinese students are entering American high schools, colleges and graduate programs in increasing numbers, via both direct enrollment and governmental or institutional agreements. American colleges and universities, in particular, can reinforce and continue to develop this globally important two-way flow of scholars by establishing physical presences in China.

Study abroad students, interns, graduate researchers, faculty and young alumni from American universities are looking for support when they travel to China. Conversely, Chinese study abroad students, graduate researchers, faculty, prospective students and even public servants and business leaders want to get connected with learning opportunities at American universities. What entities are better equipped to aid scholars in bridging the gap between countries and institutions than American university centers in China, armed with a combination of knowledge, programming ideas, best practices and contacts from both sides of the Pacific Ocean?


When expanding internationally today, US colleges and universities are faced with the question of whether to establish a degree-granting campus or a facility which hosts students and alumni but does not hold open classes or bestow degrees. The fortunes of collaborative or solo degree-granting academic institutions opened by American universities in China have been mixed, although many universities (including my own institution, the University of Chicago) have successfully established specialized graduate degree programs abroad.

Yet a range of US universities – small and large, private and public – have built a flourishing ecosystem in China of centers that function as study abroad program sites, academic gathering places, alumni hubs and international admissions portals without offering enrollment or certifications for students. Some of these centers, such as the Stanford Center at Peking University, are based at Chinese universities. Other facilities, such as the Columbia Global Centers East Asia in Beijing, operate independently or are loosely hosted by a local institution. The University of Chicago Center in Beijing, which is based near Renmin University and has been building links between its US campus and Chinese scholars since its opening in 2010, is a highly successful example of one of these American academic outposts abroad.

When establishing the center in Beijing, UChicago wished to imbue the facility and its activities with the open atmosphere and spirit of intellectual inquiry that characterize its Hyde Park, Chicago, campus. The center’s seminar rooms, lecture hall, researcher offices, library and study spaces keep academic activities in the foreground. The facility hosts initiatives such as major international academic conferences, undergraduate study abroad and research internship programs, faculty research residencies, graduate student residencies, an alumni event series and admissions open houses. A steady rotation of faculty, visiting graduate students, undergraduate study abroad students and interns and alumni of all ages populate the center’s spaces. Alumni often note that they feel at home upon walking into the center, as if they were back on campus. Visiting prospective students describe excitement at the chance to get an authentic taste of UChicago in Beijing.


The Beijing center helps many UChicago undergraduates studying abroad and faculty developing international conferences and collaborations to build bridges with Chinese counterparts and access local opportunities. Xiaodu Huang, an undergraduate student who carried out an environmental public policy research internship in summer 2014 at the center under Faculty Director Dali Yang, notes the importance of having a local support system: “[I had] the opportunity to see China’s environmental issues firsthand…being physically in Beijing was a great advantage to conducting research, as I was able to talk to local NGOs about their concerns and interview professors from Chinese universities for their perspectives.”

As American institutions continue to expand their presences internationally, it is important that the distinctive characteristics of each university are upheld in their efforts abroad. UChicago brings its own faculty and rigorous curriculum to its centers during study abroad programs, maintaining consistency with the Hyde Park campus’ intellectual tradition. 


Centers abroad also serve as awareness-raising entities that increase international familiarity with US universities and offer information to students interested in undergraduate and graduate programs. Traveling college admissions staff from Chicago host information sessions for students who would otherwise only be able to read about the university online or make a long trek to visit the Hyde Park campus. Some academic speeches at the center are attended by local high school students who wish to sample high-level American university lectures and find out more about studying in the US. During the application season, the UChicago Center in Beijing also offers space for college and Booth School of Business applicant interviews, led by alumni volunteers. Admitted students also have the chance to connect with faculty, alumni and fellow students at the Center in the lead-up to their move to Chicago.

A center abroad can thus act as an international flagship for a university, attracting the brightest students from the region through programming that represents the strengths of the institution.


In addition to maintaining the spirit, quality and mission of the home university, international centers face several layers of additional challenges. On-the-ground conditions related to local host or affiliated institutions, inter-university dynamics, budgeting, educational policy and politics must be reconciled with ideas and guidance from the home university administration. University centers must additionally involve and engage productively with local alumni networks and structures that may have been in place for years before the opening of the facility. Finally, university centers abroad must also ensure that non-China-expert visiting students and scholars engage authentically with China via creative programming and links with local scholars, instead of enveloping visitors and study abroad students in an international institutional bubble.

The UChicago Center in Beijing embodies the school’s long-term engagement with China and increases capacity for US-China and China-US flows of scholars. The center in Beijing was a model for the university’s more recently opened global centers in Delhi and Hong Kong, and is one of a number of peer centers that serve as models for future international facilities created by other American universities. Especially within hyper-mobile international communities in East Asia, American university and college centers will play an important future role in connecting home institutions to a global network of scholars, alumni and prospective students. 

Dennell Reynolds is Program Coordinator at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, an AmCham China member.