UMSL partners with Shenyang Normal University for innovative doctoral program

Shenyang Doctorate Students

Students (from left) Cindy Li, Miao Zhao, Jinxin Cheng and Ming Yi will study at UMSL for the next two years as part of a new EdD cohort. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Laura Westhoff stood in front of a classroom tucked away in the E. Desmond Lee Technology and Learning Center as her students gradually filed into the room.

They chatted and joked with each other – many switching between English and Mandarin – finding their seats slowly. It was like any other classroom on the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus, except that each student had traveled halfway around the world to be there.

The 14 Chinese students are part of an innovative EdD cohort new to the College of Education. The unique doctoral program was created in partnership with Shenyang Normal University. Students work toward their doctorates for a year at SYNU, using curriculum developed at UMSL. After that, they come to St. Louis for the second and third year of the program, graduating with an EdD.

Westhoff, associate professor of history and education, and Miriam Jorge, the Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Endowed Professor, lead the cohort.

It’s a passion project many years in the making for Westhoff.

Forging a partnership

The genesis of the new cohort can be traced to an existing relationship within the College of Education and an initiative by the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate.

The College of Education has had a longstanding student-teaching program in China, sending certification students to teach in Liaoning, a northeastern Chinese province home to the city of Shenyang. Westhoff estimates about 19 groups of student teachers have made the trip in the last 15 years.

During this time, she became acquainted with Fengyu (Lisa) Wang, a supervisor for the student teachers in China. That relationship nurtured the idea of a cooperative international EdD.

“Every time we met, no matter in the U.S. or China, we always talked about the possibility of the program,” Wang said.

A movement to rethink doctorates in education by the CPED would push the idea closer to reality. In 2011, UMSL joined the CPED consortium.

“UMSL was one of several institutions around the country that joined this effort to redesign the EdD,” Westhoff said. “That’s how we ended up with a new curriculum that thought very carefully about how to make doctoral education available to practitioners.”

The shift was designed to produce more adaptable curricula for students who planned to go into fields other than education. In rethinking the educational structure, UMSL landed on a cohort model designed to be completed in three to 3 1/2 years.

Westhoff said Wang was intrigued by the idea, and they started discussing what an international cohort splitting time between China and the U.S. would look like.

“The idea was a very flexible doctoral program that could serve as a bridge between our two institutions,” Westhoff said. “To take a very innovative graduate program from the U.S. and make it work for Chinese students and our partner institution’s needs.”

A new approach

Informal talks began around 2015, and the two institutions signed a formal agreement in 2017. SYNU quickly began advertising the program, attracting 14 students for the fall 2018 term. Ming Yi was one them.

“We started for the same reason,” Yi said. “We always wanted to have a doctorate degree – for a long time. This program, it’s fascinating. It’s in America, and to study in America, it’s a top opportunity for us.”

UMSL faculty helped to get the students and the SYNU faculty up to speed during the first year.

The EdD cohort development and mentoring took dedication from numerous faculty member, including Theresa Coble, Bill Kyle, Shea Kerkhoff, Alina Slapac and advising director Ellen Meadows. They participated in curriculum and program development and also traveled to SYNU to meet with students, faculty and administrators.

“Even though they are non-native speakers, Chinese faculty followed the curriculum guidelines that UMSL created,” Wang said. “UMSL also sent the faculty groups to come teach our students in Shenyang twice.”

There was some back and forth about the curriculum, but ultimately, the cohort approach prioritizes collaborative learning. It’s atypical of most doctoral programs, which tend to be more individualistic.

“In this model, it’s a learning community focus,” Westhoff said. “Students come in from Day One as part of a learning community. They participate in their coursework together all the way through.”

Being part of a community fosters social support, which is beneficial for international students in a new country. Westhoff noted it also promotes collaborative problem solving – something currently at the forefront of the professional educator’s world.

International faculty like Jorge – who is Brazilian – bring another perspective, as well. Because of this, Westhoff feels the students get a global education rather than a bilateral international education. Inherently, a program that crosses so many borders also lends itself to reflection on how and why certain things are done.

“It’s a way of having lots of deep conversations about culture as it’s experienced, within classrooms and education settings,” Westhoff said

Wang said the students improved their English and became more familiar with U.S. academic expectations after the first year in Shenyang. Now, Westhoff and Jorge are getting a chance to spend time with them in the classroom at UMSL.

The classroom experience

As innocuous as it might seem, things such as furniture and how students are seated can influence the environment and culture of a classroom.

It’s one of the first things students noticed attending classes at UMSL and while visiting local St. Louis area schools as part of the EdD curriculum.

“They have tables, desks or chairs not set in a regular way – row by row – as most Chinese classrooms do,” cohort member Jingxin Cheng said. “The students here – including us, including our classroom – you’re sitting in a circle.”

Cheng viewed it as a positive change, saying it aids face-to-face communication and collaborative learning.

The students are also adjusting to more straightforward differences such as interacting with faculty and the content of the cohort’s classes.

“What I appreciate the most about this is negotiation between the teachers and students,” Cheng said. “Before the classes, teachers or professors will do some housekeeping to ask for our opinions. Based on this negotiation, we will set up the rules or the plans for the class.”

Cheng said historically Chinese instructors have been more rigid, holding the power in a classroom dynamic. As a teacher in China herself, she believes that’s changing, though.

Social issues have also required closer examination.

“They’re taking a social justice course that’s part of the requirements for all doctoral students,” Westhoff said. “This course talks a lot about race relations in the U.S. and their underpinnings in education. I think that’s been a challenge for them because they just don’t have the context.”

The students were aware that slavery existed in the U.S., but Cheng said they lacked a deeper understanding of the systemic issues it spawned. Cindy Li, a fellow cohort member, said there is not the same awareness of social justice topics such as race in China. She mentioned there are 55 recognized ethnic minorities in the country, but the situation isn’t comparable. Cheng and Li agreed that social class is often a more central issue to Chinese people.

Jorge hopes to share her perspective on the issue as a Brazilian.

“Because Brazil was the last country in the world to emancipate, to end slavery, we have different legacies of slavery in the African diaspora – different from the United States,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a moment that I can bring that content to class to talk about the dynamics of race in Brazil.”

The topic has served as an entry point for discourse on other issues the students have had less exposure to.

“Besides social justice and education, I was really interested by the gender thing,” cohort member Miao Zhao said. “Back in China we don’t have that much discussion about gender.”

This is what Westhoff and Jorge find most fascinating because what starts as theoretical discussions about cultural differences leads to practical applications.

“We are emphasizing critical thinking, but not just critical thinking,” Jorge said. “I would say critical literacy because we are addressing issues that are socially, politically and culturally situated.”

A global education

This is the first EdD cohort at UMSL predicated on an international partnership, but Westhoff has a feeling that it could take off.

“This kind of partnership makes more advanced education accessible to people around the world,” she said. “This can be a model not only for China, but for other partnerships, other countries, as well.”

Aside from providing the cohort members with a unique educational experience, Westhoff hopes that the program will help internationalize the campus and help illustrate the ways culture is deeply embedded in everyday assumptions.

As for the students, many expect to return to China to teach. Li, who has already worked as an educator in the country, thinks she’ll bring some innovative ideas to the classroom. A similar path awaits Yi.

“I think I will go back to China and teach, too,” Yi said. “Because with globalization, students in China also need to learn from a different perspective or a more global view.”

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