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Engineering across the sea with the Chinese Flagship initiative

CSE student is on his way to finding his dream career

As the world’s most popular language, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than one billion people in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some may consider learning the language an impossible challenge, but for University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (CSE) student Michael Wendland, it is a passion that drives him forward.

The senior from Chaska, Minn., is studying chemical engineering, chemistry, and Asian languages and literatures with a focus in Chinese. Despite his clear enthusiasm for learning Mandarin, Wendland ironically hated the first Chinese class he took in high school. It wasn’t until he visited Shanghai on a vacation that he developed a strong interest in both the language and culture of the Chinese.

“Something clicked in my head, and the immense challenge of learning Chinese began to strongly motivate me,” Wendland said.

“From that point onward Chinese language has been one of my main passions in life,” he added.

Turning his passion into a career

Upon attending the University of Minnesota as a freshman, Wendland struggled to find a way to combine his three areas of study. Since most study abroad opportunities were purely language-based, there were very few options for science and engineering students to apply their learned languages to their technical career fields in other countries.

Then, the Chinese Flagship program emerged at the University.

An international initiative run by the University's College of Liberal Arts, the Chinese Flagship program challenges undergraduate students across the University to achieve both superior-level proficiency in Mandarin Chinese and deeply understand the Chinese culture by taking high-level language and literature courses. Chinese Flagship students at the University of Minnesota come from a wide variety of majors and immerse themselves in the study of Chinese language and culture, in one of the most highly ranked programs in the U.S. Students in the summer abroad programs sign pledges promising to speak, listen, and write only in Mandarin Chinese for the duration of the experience.

Excited for this newfound opportunity, Wendland wasted no time in applying to the program. Over the past two years, he has completed two separate study abroad programs through Chinese Flagship, including trips to both mainland China and to Taiwan. In these experiences, he has been able to actively hone his Chinese-speaking skills and prepare himself for a career juxtaposing Mandarin Chinese with engineering.

“This program is incredibly important to me and is currently the only way for me to achieve my goal of combining my passion for Chinese language with my interest in the engineering field,” Wendland said.

Preparing for the capstone

Now, Wendland is preparing for his capstone year, a consecutive two semesters of studying in China beginning fall semester 2017. He will spend half the year taking chemical engineering courses taught completely in Chinese and the other half interning at a Chinese company. At the end of the experience, if Wendland passes a rigorous exam, he will receive a certificate of fluency in Chinese.

“Before I participated in the Chinese Flagship Program, I had always expected that some point after college graduation I would have to give up learning and using Chinese in order to pursue a career in chemical engineering,” Wendland explained. “Now I feel confident that because of the experience I will gain during my capstone year, I will be able to find an engineering career where I can continuously enrich my Chinese language abilities.”

To learn more about the program, visit the Chinese Flagship Program website.

If you’d like to support students through scholarships, visit our CSE giving page.

Story by Olivia Hultgren