03/06/2013 02:28 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

Extending Beyond Natural Boundaries Can Lead to Boundless Opportunities

Sometimes this blog forces me to admit some things that are not readily public. In this case, I admit that I am a fan of The Deadliest Catch, a series about the travails of the Bering Sea crabbers. While I am never ready to testify to these individuals' foolhardiness or courage, I always watch in awe the Bering Sea. This is a body of water that can be without mercy without warning. It is nature's fury and majesty at her best. She is truly the star of the show.

Imagine my awe as I flew over this magnificent yet deadly water on my way to China for the first time. As our plane continued its journey, I realized that we were over Siberia, a landmass as equally deadly as the Bering Sea. Were these turbulent pieces of geography a foreboding of my visit? Having grown-up in the post-Korean War period, my generation was filled with stories of the "communist hordes" that fought the GIs in Korea. What was I to meet?

Before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you why I was going to China in the first place. As Benedictine University was marking the end of the 20th century and positioning itself for the 21st century, we knew that "internationalization" would be a major driver for higher education in the new century. While the university has grown significantly in the last few years, approaching 12,000 students, the world is just too big of a place for an institution like Benedictine to be all things to all people in all places.

What we needed to do was to make a decision. On what part of the world should we place our emphasis so that the institution could realize its need to go international and to be a big international player at the same time? The university has far too few resources to be good at every country. If we are truly providing an international experience to our students, we must be able to immerse them in all aspects of that country -- language, culture, history and relationships.

Approximately 12 years ago, we used the Benedictine University "crystal ball" and tried to peer into the future. We asked, "What country will be a driving force for the 21st century? Which will make the most significant impact on our students? Where should we devote our time and attention?" The answer was simple: China. If the world is to have a peaceful and productive next millennium, China and the United States must become better friends and better partners.

But how does an institution like Benedictine become vested in a country 7,300 miles away? There are no guidebooks, no courses available to handle such a question. Luckily, we had talented members of our community who began to visit and develop relationships with Chinese universities throughout the country. For almost a decade, these individuals paved the way and set the foundation for budding partnerships. Eventually, to cement the relationship (s), it was important that I, as president, begin the journey to China.

Getting back to where I began, on an airplane to China, I must say that I was filled with some trepidation. I was traveling to a country I knew little about, that spoke a language I could not speak, whose customs I might not understand, with people who may not like me. Surely, I should not be nervous. After all, I was a "person" of the world. I had traveled to Great Britain, Canada and Mexico. Wasn't I a "world traveler"? Not really! What was about to unfold for me as we landed in Beijing was one of those transformational times in your life when you know from that moment on you will never be the same.

From the moment I stepped off the airplane, all my preconceived notions and fears of what I might encounter and what I had thought of China were melted away by the warm mist of Chinese hospitality. The Chinese are a caring and loving people. Of course, there are the same kind of intransigent personalities as are found in every culture. Unfortunately, we are sometimes quick to judge the many by the few.

As I traveled throughout China, the explosive economic growth is evident everywhere. Cities are rising where there once were rice fields. Super highways are quickly replacing the byways of the past. But beyond the economic and infrastructure improvements, the spirit of the Chinese people is magic. There is a general sense that they can do whatever they want to do. The limitations associated with individuals are overcome in a people. The 2008 Olympics were a testament to the "can-do" attitude. The Olympics was viewed as the Chinese emerging as a leader for the 21st century. Prior to the start of the games, an algae problem developed in the Olympic waterways. Ordinary Chinese citizens went to see if they could assist in the cleanup. They did this because of dedication to country. if the games were to be the success they so sorely wanted, every person must do their part.

Since my first visit to China several years ago, the University has formed 14 partnerships with Chinese universities. Benedictine offers master's degrees in China and has approximately 1,000 alumni from these programs. In addition, a growing tide of Chinese students are attending Benedictine and a reciprocal number of Benedictine students are traveling to China. Many of these U.S. students have received Chinese Government scholarships to study in China. This spring, 14 Benedictine faculty members will be traveling to China to participate with their colleagues in a number of academic projects.

Through the university's decision to focus primarily on China in its internationalization, one day Benedictine students will graduate with a special expertise graduates of other institutions will lack. Obviously, our students will be wonderfully prepared in the sciences, education and the arts, but they will have a very distinct advantage. They will have had the added benefit of having a special opportunity to garner the university/China relationship into their own unique expertise. Imagine two recent business graduates applying for a job. Both have the traditional preparation that studies in business provide. Both have similar grades and work experience. However, the Benedictine graduate has something extra: a significant exposure to China. As the world gets smaller and China continues to emerge as a major international player, Benedictine students' China experience will give them an added advantage in the search for jobs.

Since my first trip to China, I have had the opportunity to visit China many times. Today, Benedictine University has an extended "family" throughout China. Whenever I am there, I try to meet with the families who have sent their children to study at Benedictine (in the United States). During these encounters, I quickly learned that there is a universal language -- the language of parents. In our many conversations, I discover people around the world want the same things -- security for family, a decent place to live and a job to provide for one's family.

As Confucius said so long ago, "Men's natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them."