Donald Swanz had always wanted to go to China. So in the early 1990s, when the St. Bonaventure University School of Business professor was invited to China to lecture on international trade topics, he didn’t have to be asked twice.
At the invitation of the Ministry of Machinery Industry, Swanz, accompanied by his wife, Mary, first visited China for a month during the summer of 1993. He spent the first two weeks in Beijing lecturing, followed by two weeks traveling in South China.
The country was in the early stages of economic reform. In 1978, following almost 30 years of a command economy, Deng Xiaoping rose to power and initiated the idea of China moving toward a more market-oriented economy.
Swanz was invited back to China a second year, during which time he met officials from Beijing Institute of Technology, who suggested he bring SBU students with him on a future trip.
In December 1997, right after Christmas, the first graduate students in St. Bonaventure’s new two-week China Studies course boarded a Northwest Airlines flight for Beijing.
They would spend two weeks discovering the history and culture of China, and the obstacles to doing business there.
“It developed beautifully,” recalls Swanz, an attorney and longtime associate professor of accounting at the university who is now retired.
Twenty years later, the course continues to be a profound experience for students who want an edge in the job market and to experience the second-largest economy in the world.
Swanz is proud of the program’s legacy of introducing St. Bonaventure students, alumni and others to the country’s 5,000-year-old culture. Swanz, professor emeritus at St. Bonaventure, was program director for its first 10 years. Dr. Carl Case, professor of management, has served as director for the past decade.
Today, the three-credit China Studies course is offered primarily to students pursuing an MBA or master’s in integrated marketing communications, but is open to undergraduate students and others. In addition to Beijing, students travel to Shanghai, Pudong, Suzhou and Xi´an.
As he organized the ’97 trip, Swanz utilized alumni and Olean business community connections, calling upon trustee Richard Kearns, ’72, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former university president Fr. Mathias Doyle, O.F.M., Dresser-Rand President Jack Murphy, and USA Today journalist John Hanchette, ’64, to open international doors to the students.
He also was able to get the U.S. Embassy in China on board thanks to then-Congressman Amory Houghton of Corning.
“We went to the embassy that year and had a briefing — and we’ve done it ever since,” Swanz said.
A dozen MBA students went on the inaugural trip, many at the request of their employer, such as one woman who worked in marketing at Rich Products and another who was a Russian translator.
Swanz took students to a shop called the Friendship Store, or to Silk Alley, where knockoff products were sold and the students had to learn some key Chinese phrases to barter to make a purchase.
“At the Friendship Store, the students would see they virtually didn’t have any choices (of merchandise). That in itself was a learning experience,” he said.
“We really got to love it. It was learning the difference in culture. You can’t learn that from a book,” Swanz said. “I’m still excited about it. It’s something I’m very proud of.”
The first time Swanz visited the country in ’93, he used the word “profit” in a lecture.
“At the break, half of the group asked what the word profit meant. Their average age was over 30, so this question was astounding to me. But as I thought about it I realized that under communism, business people did what they were told to do, never questioning – why? Profit was not a motive for the people then. But it explains Deng Xiaoping’s explanation for his command that they were to adopt capitalism but with Chinese characteristics,” Swanz said.
The course allows students to get first-hand exposure to international business that is impossible to replicate in a brick-and-mortar classroom.
For example, students may spend a day at one of the top research and development facilities in the world (Procter & Gamble), tour one of the world’s largest International Exposition Centers (SNIEC in Shanghai), meet with a U.S. Department of Commerce commercial attaché, and be briefed on social media marketing at one of the world’s largest PR firms.
They also visit cultural icons such as the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, and Tíananmen Square.
One of the program’s strengths is being able to continuously tap into alumni connections.
“Thanks to our alumni network, students have access to executives that is only possible during this class,” said Case. “In fact, the returning students actively promote the program to others because they feel it is a life-changing experience that others should also have.”
Alumna Christy Hartung, ’99, and current student Rachel Guyer, ’19, agree.
“Traveling to China was definitely a life-changing experience in many ways,” said Guyer, who is from Ridgway, Pa.
Guyer had never traveled abroad before when she took the three-credit class in May 2017 at the end of her sophomore year. A finance and accounting major, she had heard Case frequently talk about the program and the two-week travel schedule was more appealing to her than an entire semester abroad.
“I never thought I would be that bold and do something out of my comfort zone. That’s part of the reason I did it — I knew I was not comfortable with it whatsoever. There is something about experiencing a brand new culture with strangers who end up being your best friends,” she said.
She has already seen an impact on her marketability.
“Every interviewer since my trip has asked me about my study abroad trip,” she said. “It shows that I was willing to take risks and step out of my comfort zone. Though it doesn’t make you automatically get the job, I believe it definitely helps.”
It was a desire to continue learning about Chinese business and culture — and the impact of the country’s economic reform — that drew alumna Hartung to go on the trip twice.
Hartung, who earned an MBA in marketing, went on the first trip with Swanz during the 1997-98 academic year and then returned in 2014 with Case.
In 1997, she was in her mid-20s and had never been outside the United States.
“The first time I went the country was just opening up to tourists. Not many people spoke English. The idea of going back was very interesting to me. I was invited to go and couldn’t pass it up. This was an educational journey — to know the country was going to evolve and witness the progress they had made was important to me,” Hartung said.
For instance, she found the physical transformation of Beijing remarkable. The entire landscape had changed with new infrastructure and a new standard of living. She saw few second-hand cars. And the vast majority of Chinese people she met in 2014 spoke English.
When the SBU contingent visited Tíananmen Square in 1997, the atmosphere was very solemn and devoid of activity. Seventeen years later, the site of the 1989 student protests and deaths was a clear destination for visitors. Thousands of people filled the square as visitors watched a large screen with political propaganda or stopped at the nearby food trucks.
“It was overwhelming to see that type of activity and openness,” Hartung said.
“I think that as a global economy we need to understand other parts of the world,” she said. “On the trip I was not only able to see the culture and people, but visit businesses and experience how their business life is different from ours.”
She feels it has made her a better partner with her auto firm’s employees in China.
“Traveling abroad gives you a different perspective of living in the United States and the things we take for granted. We can say or do anything we want (in the U.S). If you dream something, you can make it come true. (In China) we were immersed in a culture that is controlled. It is a good perspective to have,” Hartung said.
Case’s greatest satisfaction is returning to the U.S. with students who have a newfound confidence in themselves, an amazing understanding of the world, and a significant advantage on his/her résumé.
Amid the many highlights — meeting executives, touring cultural sites, riding the fastest train in the world, visiting the second-tallest building in the world — is an exclusive research and development briefing at the Procter & Gamble Beijing Innovation Center built in 2010.
“The students see R&D, research methodologies, manufacturing, market testing, social media marketing, and so on. This is a facility that is only open to one other university in the world because of the nature of R&D security,” Case said. “Another highlight is meeting SBU alumni such as Jason Yang and Anne Ruisi who live and work in China.”
If the U.S. wants to continue to be the world leader in business, it is critically important college students and existing professionals understand the competition and opportunities, said Case.
“Study abroad allows the student to better understand the commonality of all people but also learn about subtle cultural customs.”
China is particularly important to understand because it has leap-frogged U.S. technologies in many areas, Case added.
“The infrastructure in the major cities has been built within the last 10 to 15 years and is literally state of the art. And if your future employer does not currently purchase from China or sell to the Asian market, it will likely do so.”
Learn more about studying in China at www.sbu.edu/China. The 2018 trip is planned for May 14 to 29.
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