2018 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Slippery Rock University

The Development and Benchmarking of Contemporary Sustainability Indicators for Rural Ethnic Chinese Villages:
A Case Study of the Social, Economic, and Ecological Issues of Two Gelao Villages Near Chongqing Municipality

Mentors: John Golden, Assistant Professor of Business; Li Pu, Associate Professor of Communication
Students: Marshall Tuten, Marlee Theil, Aisha Aldubayan, and Thomas Fibian

Rural poverty is still a persistent and severe problem in many Asian countries. The reality of poverty goes beyond low income, lack of infrastructure, and limited access to resources in that it also reveals issues of equity and inclusion, especially in the marginalized communities. Since Asia is home to 60% of the world’s current population with 47% of Asians living in rural areas, the question of how to develop a sustainable approach to alleviate poverty is crucial to the region (United Nations, 2014). As the largest developing country of the world, China is committed to ending rural poverty by 2020 (Hsu, 2017). Therefore, China presents an intriguing case of how to achieve sustainable rural development while empowering the local community to promote social justice and maintain cultural identity.

Combining interview, survey questionnaire and document analysis methods, our research team of two faculty members and four students will develop and benchmark specific sustainability indicators and metrics that evaluate the carrying capacity of the environmental, economic, human, and aesthetic capital of Gelao ethnic villages near Southwest China, Chongqing Municipality. Specifically, we will explore available established indicators that are drawn from the local data, such as poverty, wages, profits, air quality, water quality, crime statistics, etc. But in addition, we will also develop “sustainability indicators” that are relevant and reliable for the local community. Our field experiences will be published on a blog powered by WordPress, and recorded with professional video, audio and lighting equipment, which will turn into a student-produced short film.

Students will be exposed to multiculturalism and multiethnicity by diverse interactions with local populations. We will spend approximately three weeks in the villages to be immersed with ethnic Gelao culture. Students will develop field research skills through direct interactions with our Chinese collaborators, ranging from government officials at the local Rural Poverty Reduction Office, Chinese students and professors in local universities, and indigenous villagers. Before the field research, we will seek IRB approval on interview questions and survey questionnaires at Slippery Rock University.

Besides providing students with valuable skills in cross-cultural communication and teamwork, we will prepare students with marketable skillsets for their future careers through this project. Our final products include academic presentations, a manuscript to be published at a peer-reviewed journal, a blog, and a short film to be exhibited at regional film festivals, which require mastery of a variety of tangible technical skills in data collection, analyzing and visualization, video editing, and web publishing. We will also share our research with local communities in China to help them identify major factors affecting sustainable rural development. All the presentations, publications and exhibitions are fundamental for building students’ senior digital portfolios, graduate school application packages, professional resume reels, and for futures in international business and NGO careers.

From left, Slippery Rock University Professors Li Pu and John Golden and student researchers Aisha Aldubayan, Thomas Fabian, Marlee Theil and Marshall Tuten stand in front of the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing.

Aisha Aldubayan

On May 16 th , 2018, I traveled with three student researchers and two faculty members to Southwest China to embark on a journey that studied Chinese modernization and sustainability in rural ethic communities. Traveling to Beijing, Chengdu and Chongqing, I experienced China’s rich heritage and customs among their people, cultural sites and ethnic villages. Living with villagers in the Miao and Gelao community, my team and I were able to gather their stories about the effects of China’s modernization efforts in rural villages. By fully immersing ourselves in a three-week excursion, we gained knowledge about the Chinese culture and international sustainability. By collaborating with two Chinese Universities – – Chongqing Technology and Business University and Southwest University of Political Science and Law — we had the chance to speak with native Chinese students about the Chinese lifestyle and how it has impacted their view on the rest of the world, along with learning about the history of Chinese calligraphy and learning how to write certain characters. We also had the opportunity to visit Baiya Corporation, a private hygiene production company, in which we talked with the president of the company about internationalization strategies of Chinese business. We also met two Americans, who relocated to Chongqing permanently and become business entrepreneurs. It was in Chongqing, where we met our research host as well. Advertently, we were able to recognize the sustainability factors within China’s social, economic, and environmental statutes and determine the aspects that enact China’s poverty issue. While the American perception of China unconsciously has an input on the dynamics of our research, my knowledge and comprehension on the issue widened as I lived in the foreign land, surveying various historical and societal components.

As a Digital Media Production student, I am overwhelmingly grateful to ASIANetwork for granting me the opportunity to capture the lives of Chinese citizens through photography and video. While in China, I created a daily photo blog to highlight our daily encounters. Since returning to the United States in summer 2018, Tom Fabian, another student videographer on my team, and I created a 20-minute documentary highlighting our experience. We were invited to attend the 2018 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), the 2019 ASIANetwork Conference and Slippery Rock University’s 2019 Research Symposium to showcase our video and present our findings. As a videographer and photographer on the excursion, journeying through China challenged my professional skills and ultimately prepared me to be more marketable in my future career. The dynamics I have faced through this three-week journey heighten my knowledge on sustainability, and created a personal connection, which I will continue to use throughout my personal life and career.

Slippery Rock University research team is meeting with one of the research hosts YinhongWang, who grew up in a Miao Ethnic Village in Pengshui County of Chongqing Municipality.

Thomas Fabian

Being in a foreign country for three weeks allows you to really get immersed in the culture. Our trip to China was no different. Although I had not gotten much better at using chopsticks, we learned a lot of differences between Chinese and American culture. On our trip to China, we conducted many on-site activities. We first went through many different locations all throughout China to learn more about its culture and history. We visited the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and even a Panda Sanctuary in Chengdu. We also visited a few Chinese universities and private companies to conduct academic and cultural exchange activities. After visiting different businesses and cities, we made our way into a couple of rural and ethnic villages in Wulong and Pengshui County in Chongqing Municipality of Southwest China. At the research sites, we surveyed the population and interviewed them about how the country’s modernization initiatives have affected them culturally and economically.

Slippery Rock University visits Southwest University of Political Science of Law in Chongqing.

We have managed to complete a lot after our trip from China. Since September 2018, I have attended the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference in Chicago and the ASIANetwork Conference to showcase the 20-minute documentary. Directing, producing, filming and editing such a long documentary has sharpened my video editing and directing skills. Videography, web publishing and photography have become my favorite forms of communication throughout my coursework and life experience at the Slippery Rock University. This research program allows me to combine all knowledge I learned from a variety of digital media production major courses. Being a part of this is a tremendous honor and will help me with my goals to become an international filmmaker and much more.

Because of my achievements in international filmmaking and research, I received the Mike McHugh Award Undergrad Award for Excellence. I have also been inducted into SRU’s Media Hall of Fame. This project opportunity will probably have the biggest impact on my education and life out of all my experiences during my college career.

Marlee Theil

Conducting research in a foreign country provides individuals with an opportunity to further develop their practical and professional skills by adapting to a new environment and practicing cross-cultural communication skills. Researching in an unfamiliar region also offers insight on cultural and social differences through direct immersion. In the summer of 2018, ASIANetwork granted me, along with three other students and two faculty members of Slippery Rock University, the stimulating opportunity to not only view China’s vast heritage sites, such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but also to research poverty alleviation and its environmental, social, and economical effects at ethnic villages in Southwest China.

Slippery Rock University student researchers Marlee Theil, Thomas Fabian, and Professor John Golden are taking a Chinese Calligraphy class at Chongqing Business and Technology University.

Our research team has been selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Forum taking place at the University of Chicago in October 2018. This forum allows individuals to come together in a dynamic session to discuss approaches to different challenges, to share expertise and to help shape the global development agenda. Attending the ASIANetwork conference and the Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Achievement provided opportunities to further advance my practical and professional skills in April 2019. These networking opportunities fostered integration with other students from all over the country and facilitated engagement with other professionals and students with experiences in Asian countries. Through involvement in the grant proposal and in carrying out research, I have gained knowledge in scientific research methods, testing hypotheses, and critical analysis. As a student in the science field, conducting research in China has enhanced a variety of my skills that are crucial for the success of any scientist such as adaptability, critical thinking, and data interpretation. Because of these accomplishments, I have been selected by department faculty as the recipient of the Outstanding Environmental Geoscience Senior award. I have also been selected as the recipient of the Gene and Joann Wilhelm scholarship, specifically for international travels and research. The scholarship donors are active international travelers and value the research I have completed in China. I feel honored to be awarded so highly for my experiences in China and I am grateful that these experiences will contribute greatly to my future career.

My encounters in China, my interactions with the rural communities, and my collaborations with Chinese universities have motivated me and inspired me to further my involvement with Asian culture. This summer, I will be traveling independently to Indonesia. I will be staying with Indonesian villagers and assisting in rice terrace fields. I will also be taking part in a native ritual and visiting religious temples. In China, I had the opportunity to stay in the homes with the rural villagers, and even participate in their traditional ceremonies. Being a part of these traditions has empowered me to feel prepared to experience Asia with a new approach.

Marshall Tuten

Upon arrival in Beijing in summer 2018, our group of four students and two faculty from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania set out to develop indicators of sustainable development in rural areas. Our rich experience in China exposed us to cultural differences, a rich history, and complex people. Through collaboration with universities, their students, community leaders, cultural and historical sites, and members of both bustling cities and rural lands, I gained strong insight on our research topic, professional development and practical skill building, and most importantly the nation and people of China.

Student researcher Marshall Tuten is dedicated to learning music instruments at Wulong County’s ethnic village in Chongqing Municipality.

Architecture and geography in China are incredible in their beauty and the history they hold. From the Forbidden City, to small Buddhist temples, we witnessed with our eyes the very places where dynasties were born and reigned while being surrounded by Chinese people who strongly revere and appreciate their own heritage. Whether in Beijing, Chengdu, or Chongqing, these experiences formed an appreciation in our group for the history and uniqueness of China and its influence upon the East. This also opened our eyes to the popularity of domestic tourism in China, which would inform our research going forward. Interaction with the Chinese people was quite amazing.

It was through my entire experience in China, especially in our research development, that I developed practical and professional skills for my future career. Our research was perhaps the most challenging piece of my experience. As a foreign researcher, I came into China with a specific agenda and goal: to experience China’s society and gather information pertaining to our research of poverty alleviation efforts. In the process, I learned that not only should I have been prepared to conduct the research itself but also to change it and to adjust for unforeseen cultural and contextual challenges.

Since September 2018, my experience in China has been an integral part of my development and progress. Our activities have been various and continuing. I have always had something to complete or be involved with that pertained to one of the ASIANetwork Freedman Student- Faculty Fellowship Program core goals. The three main goals we set as a group were to prepare for publishing, prepare for the conference and other presentations, and promote our experience in China. As a Freedman Fellow researcher, I made strong progress in my professional goals, skill development, and advanced my cultural humility. I was able to see the impacts education can make in those rural communities. As a student researcher of Sustainable Development in rural China, I encountered many situations and opportunities that challenged my abilities and assumptions, gave context to my studies in school and enhanced my love of Asia. Among other outcomes, I used my research experience in China to publish on clean energy initiatives and obtain employment in a sustainable energy industry. Each goal of SFF Core Idea was strongly fulfilled in my experience, and I was awarded many honors on campus, in my community, and in the state of Pennsylvania for making the most out of the opportunity given by ASIANetwork through the Freedman Foundation Research Fellowship.

Children at Miao Ethnic Village in Pengshui County of Chongqing Municipality warmly welcomes Slippery Rock University research team.