GoAbroad Interview

Allison Rottmann - Boston University Shanghai Director

Allison Rottmann - Boston University Shanghai Director

Allison Rottmann is the director of Boston University Study Abroad programs in Shanghai, China at Fudan University. Her teaching and research interests include Shanghai history, gender in Chinese history, and the city and revolution. She has a Ph.D. in Chinese history from the University of California at Berkeley and a law degree from Duke University School of Law. She discovered her passion for China while studying international relations at George Washington University.

You have a Ph.D. in Chinese history and a law degree. How do you incorporate this knowledge and these skills into your role as Director of BU Shanghai?        

A part of my job is to teach classes in Chinese history at Fudan University for BU and other international students. My graduate study is therefore directly linked to a routine part of my work as director through teaching. More broadly, my years of studying and researching in China as a graduate student provided me with extensive knowledge about the country and its people. You can learn a lot from reading books, but living within a culture brings you to a different level of understanding about how a foreign society works.

Study abroad students in Shanghai, China

Allison with Fall 2013 students.

I also teach the Internship Seminar and do my best to mentor students in the Shanghai Internship Program. Teaching students how to thrive in a Chinese organizational or business environment also requires me to use the knowledge I’ve gained from studying and living in China since I first came here as a law student in 1985. 

How did you originally get connected with BU’s programs in China?

I was in Shanghai in 2008 for historical research as a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. During that time, Boston University approached me about teaching a history class for their program at Fudan University, and to also help manage the program while it was without a Director. Without any specific plan to do so, I found a home with Boston University in Shanghai. 

There’s likely not a typical day for you, but what does your role as BU Shanghai Director entail on a day-to-day basis?

I spend a lot of time writing and engaged in all kinds of research and communications. Most days after I wake up, I brew a strong pot of tea, sit down at my kitchen table, and begin to answer e-mails. After a couple of hours dealing with the most pressing or easiest matters, I’m ready to break away from the computer and commute to the program office on Fudan’s campus. If it’s a teaching day, that will occupy a good amount of my time. I spend at least one-third of my time on work related to teaching.

Other times, I may have meetings arranged with students, faculty, staff, or internship sponsors. I try to always be available to students who want to talk about anything. Sometimes, I travel with them on educational excursions around China. I see my job as working to manage and cooperate with three groups: Fudan University, Boston University, and the students here in the program. These groups have some things in common and some things in conflict. I try to keep the pieces related to these three groups operating and mixing well together so that in the end the students have a great educational experience in Shanghai.

BU Study Abroad Shanghai staff member with students

Allison with Fall 2014 students.

What sets BU’s program in Shanghai apart from other study abroad programs in Shanghai?

I think the depth of our internship program is one special quality. BU program students work 20 hours per week at their internships while being full-time students at Fudan. Along with commuting in a megacity and the required academic components of the program, the students who choose the Internship Program make a serious commitment of time, effort, and heart to advance their skills in multiple fields in this program. This demanding work and study experience ends up leaving students with not only a variety of new or polished professional skills, but also the kind of self-knowledge and experience that many employers seek.

I also think that the high quality of the Chinese language classes offered by BU Shanghai sets us apart from many programs. We run our Chinese classes independently of any other school or department, and have a wonderful language coordinator who focuses on making our classes as good as we possibly can. Many classes three or four students, the perfect size for language learning.

The quality of our program staff is also unique. We have a staff of four professionals with advanced degrees. This allows our commitment to education, health and safety, cultural experiences, student life, and more to be top-quality.  

What role does language learning play in your Shanghai programs?

Language learning is a crucial part of the BU programs in China. Each program we’ve created and operate here requires students to attend a Chinese language course. We offer courses for the beginner, for those already fluent in Chinese, and all levels in between. We have standard university-paced classes, and some designed on an “intensive” model to let students take advantage of their location to advance their language skills as much as they possibly can as fast as they can. Our classes are small, and students receive a lot of individual attention.

Pudong Financial District skyline at night in China

A wintertime visit to the Bund, with the Pudong Financial District skyline in the background.

I believe that some degree of fluency in Chinese is required if you want to understand deeply Chinese culture, politics, or business. Therefore, while I don’t see the BU Shanghai programs as “language programs,” the language classes that we design, staff, and run are a vital part of the educational experience available here.

What types of extracurricular activities are available for students in Shanghai? Do students have opportunities to interact with and immerse in local culture?        

Nearly any type of activity a student could want to participate in is available on campus or in this city that’s three times the size of New York City. Fudan University itself has many organizations that our students have joined, such as those in dance, sports, and singing.  Engaging in these types of organizations is one of the best ways to get to know Fudan students. Living here means that you can’t do things exactly the same way that you might do them at home, however. This mostly applies to political activism.

But if you make friends, you’ll be able to learn an awful lot about what’s on people’s minds. Chinese people tend to be warm, welcoming, and open to meeting foreigners and speaking English. It takes only a small effort on the part of the student to become a part of any local scene. If a student spends a lot of time with other foreigners while they’re in China, I think they miss out on enjoying the surprises and pleasures of local immersion.

Boston University Alumni for Global Day of Service participants in China

Beach cleaning with students and BU alumni for Global Day of Service.

Your first experience living in China was almost 30 years ago. What are some of the most notable changes you have experienced in China over the last 30 years?        

If some fundamentals in the land and culture were not the same, I could easily think I was in a different country. There were mule-drawn carts in the streets when I first came to China. And bicycles ruled the roads. Millions and millions of bicycles. In Shanghai, the Pudong of today with that amazing skyline and some of the tallest buildings in the world, did not exist. I heard people say it would exist and then in the space of a decade, it did. The speed of change in China is really remarkable. In just a few decades, a group of people nearly the size of the population of the United States has moved out of the United Nation’s lowest level of poverty of living on one dollar a day. Such a massive, fast movement of people out of dire poverty to something better has never happened before in history.

I could go on with specific examples of changes I’ve seen, but as a historian, I rather point out the significance of what is still happening in China right now. When you come to live here, every day you’ll be part of and see all around you events that will be written about for centuries to come. It’s very exciting to live somewhere, even for a few months, knowing that you’re standing in the middle of something defining, unique, tremendous, and definitely historical. 

You’re in your sixth year as BU Shanghai Director, what has been your biggest achievement since you took on the role in 2009?

From a practical perspective, its been to see the new program that BU created in Shanghai become established and successful in terms of student enrollment and satisfaction. On a more personal note, it’s been to be affiliated with an educational program that can change students’ lives. When I first began this job, I remember hearing another director tell some students that their lives would be transformed because they came to study in Shanghai. I felt that was too big of a promise to make to students, and I still do. However, she was more or less right! More students than I would have imagined possible have told me that the Shanghai program has transformed them and their futures in significant ways. I’m grateful for the opportunity I have as director to be a part of this.

Volunteer farming in Yunnan Province, China

Fall 2014 students working the land in Yunnan province.

What does the future hold for BU Shanghai? Are there any changes or areas of expansion on the horizon?

I can’t predict future trends, but a current one is increasing enrollment in the Shanghai programs, and more students creates the potential for new programs. I would love to see the creation of topic specific programs based in China with BU faculty involvement, such as something focused on the environment or on economic development. We could also consider new summer programs, such as an internship program or another program that offers new summer classes in addition to Chinese language ones.

What is the most fulfilling part of your role as Director of BU Shanghai?  

I usually tell students at the start of the semester that I hope they’ll fall at least a little bit in love with China during their time here. Most students do develop a love for one or many aspects of China and that’s really satisfying for me.