Chinese PhD Student Finds ‘Intercultural Competence’ at Mason

Posted: June 14, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: June 17, 2013 at 7:13 am

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By Buzz McClain

Jie's graduation. Photo courtesy of Jie Tian

Surrounded by friends and family, as well as her advisor, Rebecca Fox, Jie Tian celebrates her graduation. Photo courtesy of Jie Tian

Her graduation photo hints at the depth of Jie Tian’s experience at George Mason University. In the picture, the newly robed graduate is surrounded by friends, family and faculty from around the world who have gathered to celebrate Tian’s accomplishment and her discovery of her own “intercultural competence,” what she calls “a stance you take in the world.”

Tian, who graduated in May with a PhD in Education, first came to George Mason in 2007 from her post as an English language instructor at Shanghai’s Donghua University with the competitive Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. She was a Chinese language instructor in Mason’s Chinese program. “That’s how I got to know Mason and the people here and when I became interested in the [PhD] program,” she says.

A year later she returned, only this time as a doctoral student in education and a graduate research assistant for Mason professor Rebecca Fox, academic coordinator of the Advanced Studies in Teaching and Learning program in the College of Education and Human Development.

Tian’s dissertation is on intercultural competence among English language teachers in China; it’s an idea that goes beyond learning a language to understanding cultural differences.

“The study itself is an intercultural experience for me,” she says. For example, “in China, if you’d like to collect first-hand information from the field, a personal connection with the research subjects is important. Otherwise it’s very hard for the researcher to win trust from the research subjects. So when I was planning for my data collection, I discussed this issue with my committee. We agreed that it’s not about doing it one way or another, but rather, I should take advantage of my connection with the research subjects; at the same time, explain the [American] procedure to them to give them some insights into the U.S. system of research.”

The study, she says, “is a case study looking at Chinese teachers of English who teach English as a foreign language in the university I taught at in China. There are different concepts of intercultural competence in America and China. In the past we talked about linguistic and cultural competence in language education, but now we need to go beyond cultural rituals and customs.”

Tian explains the concept in more detail.  “Most people in China — including me before I came to the U.S. — got to understand [American] culture and society from soap operas and Hollywood movies, where kids call their parents by their first name, students put their feet on the desks in the classroom and schools are easy, with no homework or pressure from teachers. While the entertainment industry simplifies life, young adult learners, who are my students in China, also love to take in such fast food-like stereotyped cultural information and knowledge, which is also the case with my American students in their Chinese learning.

“In my future teaching, I hope I can convey two messages to my students: One, do not generalize a culture by linking bits of cultural facts; learn to appreciate diversity within each culture; and two, go beyond the cultural facts…T]ry to understand the reasons behind such differences.”

Fox says she, too, learned much in working with Tian. “I learned about some of the very genuine approaches to education that students have in China,” she says. “Part of our findings in our research is that as a profession we have a lot to learn from one another. It isn’t one way or the other way, but a combination of dimensions when East meets West.”

Mason, Tian says, “exemplifies this kind of intercultural competence. It has an openness toward different cultures in the diversity on campus. Here, you don’t feel like a foreigner, everyone just takes you as part of Mason.”

For Tian’s graduation, her brother flew in from California; her parents, husband and daughter, Virginia, arrived from China; a colleague from China working toward her own PhD drove from the University of Delaware; and her advisor and his wife came from the Netherlands, where Tian completed her first master’s degree.

“I have a broad network,” she says. “And I’ve stayed in touch with everyone through the years, and they kept inspiring and encouraging me. I’m the first PhD in my whole family, and everyone is curious about doing a doctoral program and my life here. It’s very demanding, and even though we have a large group of Chinese students in the United States, it’s still a very special experience for a Chinese person.”

Things were blessedly complicated two years ago with the birth of her daughter, Virginia, who is named for her birth state. “The second year was the hardest,” Tian admits. “I was pregnant and then had the baby. And my husband travels, but he is in China.”

Mason officials were accommodating when it came to pregnancy leave and offering support, Tian says. “When I learned I was pregnant, the first thing that occurred to me was should I quit my program? But Dr. Fox was really happy for me and offered flexible work options and any help that I would need.”

Helping Tian complete her studies as they worked on a significant research project was always a given for Fox. “She’s an admirable young woman, a fine scholar and an excellent educator,” says Fox. “She and I bonded both as a teacher and student, and we have come to know one another now as colleagues and friends.”

Mason was also accommodating when it came to Tian’s field of study. “I appreciate the individual care you receive from the community,” she says. “We customized our programs, and my context was English as a foreign language in China, so I could focus on the field I am interested in. My professors and colleagues in the program gave me advice on how to create my program of study.”

In August, Tian travels back to Shanghai to continue her career as a college professor. She says she has mixed feelings. “I think I’m having delayed emotions. I’m going to miss my time here. Every day was so rich.”

Write to Robin Herron at

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