Project Pengyou comes to U.Va.
Student-led initiative aims to dismantle the stigma attached to Chinese culture
In an effort to bring her passion for China and Chinese culture to the University, second-year Commerce student Alicia Underhill, recently started a chapter of Project Pengyou — Chinese for “friend” — which develops networking opportunities for events, jobs and resources related to China.
Project Pengyou developed in 2009 with President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative, which encouraged students to study abroad and work in China. The project connects alumni from the initiative who spent time in China.
“As people started to go on that initiative, there was the need to create a network of people who have actually gone and studied there, connecting us with each other,” Underhill said. “That’s the purpose of the Project Pengyou organization, which is slowly starting to get off the ground now.”
After an intensive selection process, Underhill was chosen to attend a Project Pengyou conference at Harvard University in March, where she learned strategies for funding the University chapter and increasing engagement efforts.
At the University, Underhill and fellow second-year Commerce student Olivia Greenberg, group co-founder, hope to extend the project to an even larger population.
“The purpose of Project Pengyou was to not only [connect but also] get people who are not interested in China interested in China,” Underhill said. “What we really want to do with it is go into first-year language classes and encourage them to continue with their language study.”
The two also hope to make Chinese language students aware of the resources available to students, such as the Chinese Corner tutoring program and study abroad scholarships.
“I’m going to China this summer, essentially for free, with an additional stipend,” Greenberg said. “There are a lot of opportunities that this school offers because they want you to go abroad. It’s really just finding those opportunities.”
Both Underhill and Greenberg have previously visited China — Underhill through a University study abroad program and Greenberg through a friend — and they profess an immense love for the culture and people of China.
“When I started taking Chinese, I thought there was no way I [would] want to go to China,” Greenberg said. “Then I went and realized this is such a cool, dynamic place. It was nothing I had ever experienced before and I really loved it and wanted to share my experience with other people.”
Greenberg hopes to organize different speakers of the Project Pengyou network to come give talks at the University. The founders also plan to mobilize a Charlottesville community liaison, engage Chinese professors of the University, expand the executive board for the chapter and host cultural festivals and films. Overall, they hope to remove the “stigma” Chinese culture is seen with in America.
“Especially in America, Chinese culture has a stigma to it; people don’t really understand it,” Greenberg said. “What we really want to do is take that stigma away from it. I found out that when I went to China. I absolutely loved the place and I didn’t want to leave. Different doesn’t necessarily mean scary or bad it’s — just something you need to get used to.”
Underhill and Greenberg said they were shocked by the huge presence of Western culture in China during their stay — awareness that poses a significant contrast to the knowledge everyday Americans have about Chinese culture.
“You come to America and ask people what do you know about Chinese culture and it’s virtually nothing,” Underhill said. “There obviously are going to be differences [in culture] that both sides may not be able to fully reconcile, but that does not mean that you can’t respect and appreciate someone else’s differences.”
The University chapter will celebrate Pengyou Day Nov. 20 — also the tentative date for national international studies day.