Reaching Out – Magnificently

USF’s Confucius Institute connects China to the community on and off campus through various events.

USF Confucius Institute Culture Center Manager Jianghua Zou introduced the pipa instrument to students at Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (July 20, 2012) – “Learn Chinese. Double your world.” That’s the Confucius Institute’s motto, a timely suggestion. 

The Confucius Institute at the University of South Florida is one of three in the U.S. and one of 15 worldwide rated “Magnificent CI” – Meili Kong Yuan, in Chinese – by Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters. Not an easy achievement given the friendly competition to stand out among the world’s 360 branches. 

What has helped reach this level of excellence is that USF Confucius Institute (USF CI) Director Kun Shi is determined to help people double their worlds in every way he can. He works tirelessly to make sure that USF CI – the southeastern U.S.’s first Confucius Institute – is the go-to resource in this region for learning Chinese as well as learning about Chinese culture. As a result, connecting to China couldn’t be easier for the people of Tampa Bay and surrounding areas.

To get the word out, USF CI – which is part of USF World – has organized and co-sponsored lecture series, film screenings, conferences and various special events both on and off campus.

The staff has reached out to K-12 teachers in particular so that they in turn can alert their students to the many opportunities now available to learn Chinese. For example, USF CI funded a teacher workshop titled “Crossing Paths: Teaching Chinese History, Art and Culture,” in May at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art in  Gainesville, It was geared to K-12 art and sixth grade world history teachers in Alachua, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Gilchrist, Marion, Levy, Putnam and Union counties and earned them inservice points.

A delegation of Florida educators connected with K-12 schools in China in 2010 and last moth 13 high school students from Tampa Bay and Orlando made a similar trip. Both excursions were partially funded by Hanban to provide personal experiences of Chinese language and culture via historical and cultural sites such as the Forbidden City, Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shaolin Temple, Longmen Grottoes and other locations.

To help capture young peoples’ interest, Shi gets help from the institute’s Chinese Cultural Center Manager Jianghua Zou, as well as USF students who have been to China, and has even enlisted a local martial arts instructor. They all try to convey the message, “Chinese is not as difficult to learn as you imagine,” said Shi.

Shi and Zou took their message to Thurgood Marshall Middle School last spring. Zou played the guitar-like pipa, an instrument that has a 2000-year history which she learned to play at the age of seven.

“Everyone can understand music,” Zou said. “By listening to this very traditional Chinese music, I think they are getting in touch with Chinese culture.”

At last count, in 2010, there were approximately 3,000 public school and 2,000 private school students already learning Chinese in Florida. Shi thinks that when the next survey is done, there may be close to double that amount.

Marshall Middle School is the first school in the state of Florida to have a Confucius Classroom program which pairs American schools with partner schools in China. There are now three in the state and according to Shi, over 200 around the nation. 

Shi says young children can identify best when USF students talk with them. Recent graduates Misty Sirine and Victor Florez are prime examples. Both made China their nation of choice for overseas study, and worked with CI and USF faculty, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Eric Shepherd.

“When they see young people much like themselves, they know, ‘If she did it and he did it, I can do it.’ Learning Chinese doesn’t seem so impossible,” said Shi and added, “Learning is a matter of many things. You certainly have to practice but it’s also important to be open-minded and if you can immerse yourself in the culture as well, it becomes that much easier.”

When talking to young students, Sirine found out which ones are already curious about China and did her best to use their curiosity to spark interest in all the students. She engaged them in making Chinese lanterns and doing calligraphy.

“By finding out their interests and simply answering their questions I was able to let them know how good the program is here,” she said. 

The international studies major agrees that having an open mind is the best quality to bring to studying Chinese – something she knows from experience. Sirine took three study abroad trips to China. Though headed to the London School of Economics to study anthropology and international development in the fall, she hopes to return to China some day in the not too distant future.

“I made many friends there,” she said. “The people are very friendly and there are a lot of places I still want to see.”

Preparation in learning the language made an important difference for Sirine and Florez. USF is provided with three faculty members from China – funded entirely by CI headquarters – who teach Chinese in the Department of World Languages. 

Introductions to Chinese culture and learning also happen in many other ways on campus.

Shi completed teaching a course on “China: Past and Present” to adult learners enrolled at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. His was the largest class of the semester. He is teaching another course there on religious beliefs in China this summer.

In addition, USF CI works with partners to hold an annual Chinese Culture Festival that attracts attention from throughout the Tampa Bay area. The CI Lecture Series, in English, also open to the general public, offers still more chances to learn about China’s many facets. Topics have focused on contemporary art in China, Chinese religious beliefs, U.S./China relations, Chinese medicine and acupuncture, and green urban design in China. 

There’s even a Chinese Language and Culture Club organized by students on campus that’s open to all. Language proficiency is not required, though most members are enrolled in the Chinese program in the Department of World Languages. It functions to promote awareness and build relationships.

With all of these activities, the USF CI program is becoming better known, not only in Florida via local media, but also in China. Out of the 360 Confucius Institutes, Hanban has featured USF CI on its website numerous times. Major Chinese media have taken notice of its achievements as well.

“It’s very gratifying to see stories about USF CI in newspapers like the World Journal (the largest newspaper in Chinese in North America) and newspapers in China, letting them know about us and USF,” said Shi. “But we’re now at the point where people are calling us, not only around Chinese New Year, to find performers or speakers, but for other special occasions, too. More and more people know we’re here and that we’re a helpful resource.”

Those interested in connecting with the USF CI can email:

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.