I always knew that I wanted to study Chinese and travel to China in college.
My main criteria in selecting a school were thus a strong language program and just such a travel opportunity. Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Professor Yin-lien C. Chin fit the bill. Not only did she offer a strong course of study in Mandarin, but she was also the woman who first made it possible for undergraduate, American college students to study in post-Mao China. I had met Professor Chin when visiting Vassar’s gorgeous campus and my decision was made. I was a freshman in 1984.
The story of how she secured permission for her students to study in China began in 1978, after the death of Mao Zedong and the fall of the Gang of Four, when Deng Xiaoping completed another political comeback to become China’s paramount leader. The People’s Republic of China and the United States normalized relations in 1979, and Deng was scheduled to visit the U.S.
In the run up to this visit, the Chinese government sent a delegation of scholars to visit the United States. Led by the President of Beijing University, one of the co-leaders was China’s Vice Minister of Education. One Thursday afternoon, the Secretary of the Chinese Consulate in New York City, a man who Professor Chin had been trying unsuccessfully through contacts to speak with for many months to discuss sending Vassar students to China, called her out of the blue. Would she be able to travel down the Hudson to New York City the next morning to meet the Vice Minister of Education? He wanted to speak with her. There was only one answer to that question, right?
Grabbing a Vassar College catalogue, Professor Chin headed into Manhattan Friday morning. The Vice Minister wanted to know about college tuitions in America because the Chinese government was planning to send 500 graduate students to America for further studies, and they had no idea what higher education cost in this country. An American business organization had offered to handle placement of these students at various colleges and universities for $10,000.00 per student. The Vice Minister had to sign a contract with the organization later that very day.
His simple question to Professor Chin: “Was this a reasonable price?”
Showing him Vassar’s 1979 Catalogue and its $8,000.00/year tuition and telling him that State Colleges in New York were then charging about $4,000.00/year, she informed the Vice Minister that Ivy League schools were probably not in the cards and that the business organization would likely send the Chinese students to State colleges in the Mid-West. Since tuitions there were even cheaper than in New York State, she suggested that the Chinese government only pay $5,000.00 per student to cover tuition and the organization’s costs.
The Vice Minister was grateful for this advice. His next question to Professor Chin was equally to the point, “How many students do you want to send to Beijing?”
She was prepared. “Between three and five undergraduate students each year.”
With that, Vassar College became the first school in America to send undergraduate students to a re-opened China in September 1979, when five students accompanied a group of sixty-five graduate students and assistant professors to Beijing. The trip was sponsored by the U.S. government. It was an event captured by The New York Times:
“[Several American University Presidents and professors have or will be traveling to China.] American students are not far behind. Vassar College has received permission for five undergraduates to study at the Peking Language Institute next year and, if they are sufficiently fluent in Chinese, to attend Peking University as well” (The New York Times, February 5, 1979, “Chinese Scholars Arriving in the Metropolitan Area”).
Not that many years later in 1986, I was on an airplane thankful to Professor Chin for her tenaciousness and foresight. As seen in China Sings, I was also petrified.