The Kids Are Alright

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI — I spent much of today on the campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University here, my second campus visit since coming to China. I also hung out for few hours one afternoon and pestered a few students at Tsingua University in Beijing last week.

University campuses in China seem to take after the cities they reside in: huge and sprawling, frequently with new construction going on these days. But aside from that, they look remarkably like their Western counterparts: grassy commons and quads, with students and academic types running hither and yon, in order to get to class on time, or deep in discussion as they stroll along.

One notable exception is the lack of what we call typical college bars in the United States — you know, those dive bars adjacent to campus that we spent so much time in, back when we were students. At least I did.

Back in my college days, when I wasn’t cramming for a midterm or in the library trying to finish one or more term papers on the weekend before they were due, or chasing a story for a journalism class or my part time job on the local alternative rag, I frequented places with names like MacSweeney’s Tavern of Love, the West End Tavern, Tony’s and Lucky’s Downstairs — I had my own stool, at Lucky’s, basically.

Yes, drinking doesn’t seem to be as large a part of the curriculum here as it is at schools in the U.S. and Europe; students here even have curfews to contend with. This I found hard to believe; no way college students could be that rigid, I don’t care what nationality you are, or where your country lies on the ideology spectrum.

Fortunately, Alma Wang, one of my colleagues from EB China, filled me in and assured that the curfew is often flaunted. I figured as much. Kids will be kids.

That’s Capitalism With a Big “C”

But aside from having to put up with a little more authority than we have — and looking back I could probably have benefited from a little more authority and a little less freedom in college, quite frankly, God knows my liver could have — the students of East and West aren’t all that much different. Students here wonder about the same things as students do there: get a job, or continue with post graduate work? Get my masters here or study abroad?

Here, China is cranking out so many EEs nowadays, some students worry about being able to get a job — back when everything was state-owned and run, the job market was a little more stable; nowadays competition for jobs is high. Welcome to a market economy and capitalism, boys and girls.

In the long run, the students here also want the same things American students want: a stable job and a career, making enough money to afford a car, and a house, not to mention to raise a family. Some students I talked to dream about starting their own business. Looks like their might be some trademark infringement problems between The American Dream and The Chinese Dream.

But one thing that is different with today’s Chinese student from that of years past is their faith in the future. It’s an ongoing story in China right now: graduates returning from abroad to work and start businesses in China. And many students here today, even among those who plan to get their master’s degrees abroad, plan to come back to China.

As Zhen Yexiu and Fu Zhenjia, two electrical engineering undergraduates here at Jiao Tong University observed, things are much better now than in the past, in terms of future job possibilities in electrical engineering. Both plan to get their masters outside of the Chinese mainland, Zhen in the United States and Fu in Hong Kong, and both plan on returning to China. Fu wants to be a teacher; Zhen’s interests lie in MEMS applications.

Ten years ago, they likely would have chosen to remain abroad, but not so today.

And in addition to universities partnering with foreign chipmakers and other technology companies to expose engineering students to the equipment and methodologies they will have to be familiar with in the job market, educators here are also trying to teach engineering students how to work in teams — how to take a group approach to tackling a project.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaAs members of the faculty here explained, it’s not something that Chinese universities have traditionally taught; rather, in the past they have emphasized individual achievements. But that approach doesn’t really prepare students to work in today’s chip industry, and if China as a nation is going to become competitive in a global sense, that needs to change, they acknowledged.

Yes, I think the Chinese kids are alright. When people talk about China as a competitive threat, I think education is one area where it might actually prove to be true.


Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

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