Minnesota is about 6,000 miles from China, but a 93-year-old Chinese scholar has made the state his home. In the process, he's become one of the University of Minnesota's oldest and most loyal alums and played a supporting role with a new wave of Chinese students flocking to the state.
Yong Jiang was a student in China 66 years ago when he opted to attend graduate school at the U, based on word of mouth from a friend. When he finished his studies, he stayed.
"I really love Minnesota," the 93-year-old man says.
He's not alone. Chinese enrollment at U.S. universities has increased dramatically every year for the past five. In fact, China is the leading country of origin for students coming to the U.S. The Institute of International Education, a non-profit that tracks the numbers, says there were nearly 195,000 college students from China in 2012, up 23 percent from the previous year.
The University of Minnesota's formal relationship with China began 99 years ago; it's one of the oldest in the country, and about 10,000 students and scholars from China have attended the U since the relationship began. The U consistently ranks at or near the top in the number of students and scholars from China -- there are nearly 2,800 this year.
Yang Jiang (no relation) is one of them. She's a freshman studying psychology at the U of M who says that even though she got high scores on her college entrance exam there was no room at her preferred colleges back home. She had the resources to come to Minnesota instead.
"More and more students are thinking about going abroad because they've got more money and they can afford the tuition here and they want to see the bigger world, they don't want to stay in their home country their whole lives, I think," she says.
For Yang Jiang and many other expatriate Chinese, Yong Jiang exists as a sort of human bridge between the two countries at the university. Many of the 2,800 Chinese students and scholars there know him, regard him as an elder and look up to him.
The son of a silk merchant father and homemaker mother, he came to Minnesota in 1947, earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering, and returned to China in 1950 for an important personal matter: "Married, to get married," he says.
Jiang became a professor and chair of the hydraulic engineering department of Northwestern Agricultural College in Yanglin, Shaanxi province, and then later was professor and chair of the department of engineering mechanics at Xi'an Jiaotong University in Xi'aan. During those 43 years, Jiang also survived two of the country's most violent periods: the moment in 1949 when the communists took power, and Cultural Revolution in 1966.
"I lost my freedom," as he and millions of other Chinese regarded as unfaithful followers of communism lost their jobs, he says. While some were killed or took their own lives, he was sent off to do farm work "from morning until evening" for five years.
Now living in St. Paul all these years later, Jiang is an American citizen and a tireless booster of his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. His daughter earned a graduate degree from St. Cloud State University and his granddaughter will become a graduate student at Minnesota State University Mankato this fall.
Now that the University of Minnesota's formal relationship with China nears the 100-years next year, he 's proud to say that there are three generations of my family educated in Minnesota."