Susan Brownell became a much-quoted expert on the role of sports in Chinese life during last year's Olympic Games. But the former college track star-turned-China scholar, the author of Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) gained her insights from a one-year stint as a Fulbright Scholar in the Asian nation. Brownell offers her insights on how Fulbright helped expand her expertise and her university’s global presence:
Although I had been researching sports in China for 23 years, my Fulbright experience was absolutely irreplaceable in helping me to advance my understanding to a much higher level. First, because it enabled me to spend one entire year in China, which I have not done since I was a graduate student in the 1980s. After one has a job and a home, it becomes much more difficult to arrange to be away from the U.S. for that long. So I was grateful that the Fulbright enabled me to do it both financially and organizationally.
I was the first foreign expert to stay at the Beijing Sport University for [a full academic year]. Foreign experts are frequently invited to lecture there, but the longest length of time is one semester, and generally they only stay for one or two weeks. Although they were used to foreign experts, my one-year stay ran into some bureaucratic obstacles which were, fortunately, worked out. This was facilitated by the prestige of having their first Fulbright Scholar on the campus, as well by the pre-existing structure for Fulbright recipients arranged through the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Of course my situation was unique since I was researching the Beijing Olympic Games, so it was very important for me to be in Beijing in the year before the Games because that was where everything was happening. The length of my stay combined with the pressure of the impending event meant that I developed much closer working relationships than I had in the past because the Olympics put a lot of pressure on my Chinese colleagues to engage with the international community. They needed my skills – from my native English-speaking skills to the ability to mediate between my Chinese colleagues and academic colleagues in the West – more than ever. The fact that we all found ourselves working together toward a common goal in such a high-pressure situation also made us much closer, and it increased their trust in me.
The ultimate result was that I got better inside information than I had ever gotten before. My understanding of China improved exponentially. My casual contact with the embassy developed into collaboration on some projects that facilitated my own research. It was helpful for me to better understand how the embassy and the State Department operate, and to meet with the U.S. Olympic Coordination Office that the embassy opened for the Olympic Games.
[Through Fulbright] I established closer relationships with Chinese colleagues, which have enabled me to facilitate exchanges. One colleague has been appointed as a research affiliate at UMSL to facilitate our collaboration. Another colleague is sending me a graduate student for the next academic year – he has a scholarship from the Chinese Scholarship Council, so he is funded from the Chinese side, and will work with me on joint projects. I will be on his (Chinese) Ph.D. committee. This is what’s known as the “Joint Ph.D.” in China. Probably more such students will follow. This benefits me and the department because we do not have our own graduate program and so don’t have our own graduate assistants.