from San Gabriel has founded a university that offers students English lessons
XINZHENG, CHINA -- If you're in Alhambra and ask Shawn Chen
what his job is, the 46-year-old Chinese American will probably tell you he runs
a 60-room Best Western next to a drugstore and a burger stand on Main
But if you pose the same question standing here in China's
central Henan province, Chen will say he's building one of this nation's
fastest-growing universities on about 400 acres -- almost twice the size of the
main USC campus.
Nine years ago, Chen
launched SIAS International University with less than $2 million, 250 students
and a healthy dose of gumption. Today, the school has more than 16,000 students
and nearly 50 buildings -- including a Roman amphitheater, French and Italian
restaurants and an administration hall with a domed Capitol-like facade on one
side and a Forbidden City tableau on the other. A swimming stadium, with an
Olympic-size pool, is rising amid lotus and wheat fields.
faculty of about 700 includes 119 foreign instructors, mainly from the U.S. They
teach English, history and literature and help students with debate club,
cheerleading and marching band -- things unheard of in this country.
don't believe only in textbooks," Chen said. "We want to make a very rich campus
Born and raised in China's midwestern metropolis of Chongqing,
Chen went to the United States in 1985 and got a master's degree in education at
Linfield College in Oregon. After attending a typical no-frills, monochrome
college in China, he basked in campus life in the Pacific Northwest.
worked as a dormitory resident assistant. He joined the international club. He
swung a tennis racket for the first time. Chen was so taken by American culture
he named his children Brandon and Brenda, after the two characters in the early
1990s TV hit "Beverly Hills, 90210."
In California, Chen made money
trading lighters, shampoos and steel doors from China. With two partners, he
paid $2.7 million for the four-story Best Western in 1996. Chen says the idea
for SIAS came naturally as he traveled between China and the U.S., making
contacts and building relationships.
"When I left, China was rationing,"
he said. "Now, it has an abundance of tall buildings and everything. But it
doesn't matter how much China grows, it is still lacking in
Chen saw the need -- and the business opportunity -- while
serving on the board at three Chinese high schools in the early 1990s and
organizing exchange visits between students in Chongqing and San Gabriel. He
went on to arrange similar trips for government officials from China and
In 1996, he called a few friends and they put together a
20-page business plan. Chen took it to Henan, one of China's poorest provinces
and the most populous.
Henan officials were hungry for investment, and
Chen knew things looked good when, after a meeting with Communist Party leaders
in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, they called the airport and ordered the
plane to wait for a tardy Chen.
"My impression is that [Chen] is a clever
and shrewd person," said Zheng Haodong, vice mayor of Xinzheng City. "He didn't
have a lot of money. It was not easy for him to develop the school to its scale
Chen is a little cagey about the finances of SIAS, which doesn't
stand for anything even though it looks like an acronym. (It is named for a
company Chen dreamed up for a master's in business administration project at
UCLA. He didn't graduate there but eventually got an MBA from Willamette
University in Salem, Ore.)
He says he has built SIAS on funds from
relatives, tuition fees and a $12-million loan from Bank of China. He says he
has yet to receive a salary, only a $500 monthly travel and expense
The school is set up as a nonprofit enterprise, though China's
rules on such operations are vague. "So far we haven't made any profit," he
said, calling his work a philanthropic endeavor.
Despite the university's
rapid growth, getting it off the ground wasn't a piece of cake. In the early
years, the school struggled to get hot water into dorms. Recruiting qualified
teachers has been a challenge, as has financing, especially after the local
government flip-flopped on its land grant.
Chen just keeps forging ahead,
pressing the flesh on both sides of the Pacific. He hooked up with Fort Hays
State University in Kansas, another school in the middle of wheat fields, and
arranged a partnership that lets SIAS students receive an American degree
without setting foot in the States. Taking classes by video and over the
Internet, SIAS students earn a dual bachelor of arts degree: one from SIAS and a
general studies degree from Fort Hays.Academic
For Fort Hays, China was a way to help reverse declining
enrollment and revenue. The university now has 4,200 students in western Kansas
and 5,200 off campus -- 2,200 in China, most at SIAS.
SIAS isn't cheap.
Tuition this year runs about $1,400, about triple the average for a college in
Henan. For students wanting a dual degree, the tab is $2,250. Only a tiny
fraction has access to financial aid.
Is it worth it? In local government
and business circles, SIAS has a reputation for producing students with strong
English skills. But SIAS is still considered to be among the third-tier
universities in China, mainly private colleges that are expensive but easy to
Zhao Xin, 24, graduated this summer with a dual degree in
industrial and commercial management. He works in Beijing as a salesman for
Pingan Insurance, making $200 a month, plus commission.
Beijing haven't heard of SIAS, so I applied with my Fort Hays degree," he said,
adding that the Kansas university is better known because it also has a
partnership with Normal University in Beijing.Foreign
Enrollment at SIAS and other private colleges has been
growing fast as standards of living in China have risen. Since 2002, about 100
Sino-foreign cooperative programs at schools have been launched in China, says
Fang Minglin, researcher with the Department of Educational Development in
SIAS' foreign instructors earn $400 to $500 a month plus room
and board and round-trip airfare. Many are recent college grads looking for
adventure and tend to leave after a year or two.
Mary Alice Meeks, 68, an
oral English teacher from Dayton, Ohio, is one of the few who has been around
since the beginning.
The former Montessori elementary school teacher has
coached the SIAS English speech team, which is top rated in the province. "It's
just like in America. You can help out with this club or that," she
In other ways, college life at SIAS is regimented much like
everywhere else in China. At 7 a.m., public speakers blare the national anthem.
Students must leave their dorms by 8, when doors are locked, and they aren't
reopened until 11 a.m. Lights turn off at 11 p.m.
But between those
hours, the university is bustling. On a cool October evening, Bi Beibei, a
19-year-old sophomore, was working up a sweat in Jordan Hall, named for
basketball legend Michael Jordan. (He didn't donate money for it; Chen says all
buildings are named for famous people -- Einstein, Edison, Pasteur.)
goes to this gym four days a week, practicing cheerleading drills two to three
hours each time. Wearing a maroon skirt and top with SIAS emblazoned in white,
Bi said she was attracted to the university by pictures she saw in recruitment
materials posted in her high school.
Bi didn't even know what
cheerleading was, but in May, she and 15 others flew to Orlando, Fla., to
compete in the world cheerleading championships, with support from CKE
Restaurants Inc., the parent of fast-food chains including Carl's Jr. "Chairman
Chen encouraged us, told us his expectations, drove us around and even watched
our bags when we sneaked out to play" at Disney World, she said.
students call him Dr. Chen, the title on his business card. In interviews, Chen
downplayed the title, confiding that it refers to an honorary doctorate degree
he got from the University for Humanistic Studies, an obscure San Diego school
that's now defunct. Chen has tried to bolster his academic credentials by taking
classes for educators at Harvard.
Chen says he prefers to keep a low
profile for himself and SIAS. Drawing too much attention is risky, he said,
alluding to the old Chinese saying, "Fame portends trouble for men, just as
fattening does for pigs."
That's no problem in Southern California, where
Chen is little-known even in the Chinese American community. He spends every
other month in San Gabriel, in a large two-story home with a pool and waterfall,
with his wife, Angel, and their two children. Chen sometimes takes his black
Cadillac sport utility vehicle to his inn about 10 miles away, but he has a
manager running it day-to-day.
"He's a down-to-earth, unassuming
individual," said Mike Gin, mayor of Redondo Beach, which this year became a
sister city to Zhang Jia Gang, an industrial town about 60 miles north of
Gin, a second-generation Chinese American, credits the
relationship partly to Chen's efforts a decade ago when Chen helped Redondo
Beach officials during a friendship trip to China.
Chen's efforts to
leverage such goodwill in California and China haven't always met with
In 2004, he launched a project more ambitious than SIAS. Chen
called it California Industrial City, a sprawling industrial park in Zhengzhou,
with Western-style homes, entertainment and an enterprise zone where California
businesses could set up shop.
Henan agreed to devote more than 11,000
acres to the project. Chen's team pledged to raise $99 million for development.
But the deal unraveled late last year. Wang Qinghai, vice mayor of Zhengzhou,
said Chen's group never came through with the money.
Chen blamed it on
changed land policies in Beijing. The experience left him bitter, and he turned
his focus back to SIAS, where he has plans -- lots of them -- on his drawing
board. Next up? A greenhouse, a nine-hole golf course and a 12-story library in
grand Italian style.
"My vision, my dream," Chen said, "is for a very
different model of education in China. I want to build a more well-rounded and
creative student body."email@example.com