Students Return to China’s Hangzhou Project Center
While all of WPI’s 50+ project centers were forced to pivot back in 2020, the majority of them have been able to resume operations at their original locales. Now, after three long years, the Hangzhou Project Center has joined them—in fact, as of this publication, students are hard at work on collaborative projects in the bustling city.
“We’re really excited,” says Jennifer Rudolph, professor of East Asian history, director of the China Hub, and co-director of the project center. “Because of the friction and tension between the U.S. and China, this type of person-to-person exchange is more important than ever for both countries in terms of building a reservoir of goodwill and understanding each other’s perspectives.”
This type of person-to-person exchange is more important than ever for both countries in terms of building a reservoir of goodwill and understanding each other’s perspectives.
Founded by Rudolph in 2014, the Hangzhou Project Center was part of an effort to expand offerings related to China for WPI students. “Back then,” Rudolph says, “there was no Chinese Studies minor and no Chinese language courses at WPI; the only Interactive Qualifying Project center in the greater China region was in Hong Kong, which has a much different vibe than mainland China.”
In 2019, the project center transitioned into a mixed-team model, which is utilized by only a handful of project centers and makes for a richer, even more cultural IQP experience. Together with students from academic partner Hangzhou Dianzi University (HDU), students work on projects focused on everything from determining the feasibility of an electric bike share system in Hangzhou to developing an app with an NGO for improving mental health to exploring best practices for a local bilingual Montessori school.
“It’s a real growing experience for both groups of students,” says Associate Professor of Teaching and Associate Director of the China Hub Wen-Hua Du, who joined the project center as co-director after advising projects there in 2018. “It gives them the chance to reflect on and implement different approaches to the work at hand while navigating educational, cultural, and political norms. There’s nothing more meaningful than doing a project together.”
From navigating the visa application process to on-the-ground research on how the city has changed since the pandemic began and what students can expect. The process of reopening the Hangzhou Project Center took collaborative efforts from Rudolph, Du (HDU’s academic liaison to WPI), Yunhong Shen, and WPI’s own Global Experience Office (GEO).
“It takes a whole team to make any of these projects work,” says Rudolph, citing the GEO staff in particular for their expertise. “It’s such a complicated logistical puzzle, and they put so much time and effort into this. We couldn’t do any of it without them.”
The students aren’t the only ones who have been looking forward to connecting with their partner university colleagues and the city of Hangzhou itself. Professor of Management Joseph Sarkis and Hansong Pu, adjunct teaching professor of Integrative and Global Studies, have been advising students since the pandemic began in 2020, and for the first time, they’ll be advising projects in Hangzhou instead of locally or from a third site, like Hawaii, where the students conducted projects in 2022 working with sponsors and students in Hangzhou.
“The thing I am looking forward to most is helping the students appreciate the culture, the environment, the vitality of Hangzhou,” says Sarkis. “I look forward to the conversations the students will have as they try new foods, learn the culture, and see the sights. For many, it will be unlike any experience they have had.”
While students are currently making memories of their own in and around Hangzhou, Du has one from before the pandemic that has stuck with her to this day. As a project advisor in 2018, she worked with a student who was born in Hangzhou but grew up in the US after having been adopted. Using the limited information provided by her adoptive parents, as well as help from an HDU faculty member, the student was able to find and meet her birth parents in Hangzhou; the happy meeting was even written about in a local newspaper.
“When I first came to WPI, one of the things that really drew my attention was the IQP,” Du recalls after reminiscing about the special moment. “Yes, it’s an opportunity for students to complete project work and collaborate abroad with cohorts. And like it was for this student, it could also be a life-changing experience—in more ways than one.”