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Rah rah, sis boom bah -- that's Chinese, right?

An entrepreneur from San Gabriel exports his love of U.S. campus life to China, creating a popular school that offers English lessons and cheerleading.

December 04, 2007|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

XINZHENG, CHINA — If you're in Alhambra and ask Shawn Chen what his job is, the 46-year-old Chinese American will probably tell you he runs a 60-room Best Western next to a drugstore and a burger stand on Main Street.

But if you pose the same question standing here in China's central Henan province, Chen will say he's building one of this nation's fastest-growing universities on about 400 acres -- almost twice the size of the main USC campus.

Nine years ago, Chen launched SIAS International University with less than $2 million, 250 students and a healthy dose of gumption. Today, the school has more than 16,000 students and nearly 50 buildings -- including a Roman amphitheater, French and Italian restaurants and an administration hall with a domed Capitol-like facade on one side and a Forbidden City tableau on the other. A swimming stadium, with an Olympic-size pool, is rising amid lotus and wheat fields.

The school's faculty of about 700 includes 119 foreign instructors, mainly from the U.S. They teach English, history and literature and help students with debate club, cheerleading and marching band -- things unheard of in this country.

"I don't believe only in textbooks," Chen said. "We want to make a very rich campus life."

Born and raised in China's midwestern metropolis of Chongqing, Chen went to the United States in 1985 and got a master's degree in education at Linfield College in Oregon. After attending a typical no-frills, monochrome college in China, he basked in campus life in the Pacific Northwest.

Chen worked as a dormitory resident assistant. He joined the international club. He swung a tennis racket for the first time. Chen was so taken by American culture he named his children Brandon and Brenda, after the two characters in the early 1990s TV hit "Beverly Hills, 90210."

In California, Chen made money trading lighters, shampoos and steel doors from China. With two partners, he paid $2.7 million for the four-story Best Western in 1996. Chen says the idea for SIAS came naturally as he traveled between China and the U.S., making contacts and building relationships.

"When I left, China was rationing," he said. "Now, it has an abundance of tall buildings and everything. But it doesn't matter how much China grows, it is still lacking in education."

Chen saw the need -- and the business opportunity -- while serving on the board at three Chinese high schools in the early 1990s and organizing exchange visits between students in Chongqing and San Gabriel. He went on to arrange similar trips for government officials from China and California.

In 1996, he called a few friends and they put together a 20-page business plan. Chen took it to Henan, one of China's poorest provinces and the most populous.

Henan officials were hungry for investment, and Chen knew things looked good when, after a meeting with Communist Party leaders in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, they called the airport and ordered the plane to wait for a tardy Chen.

"My impression is that [Chen] is a clever and shrewd person," said Zheng Haodong, vice mayor of Xinzheng City. "He didn't have a lot of money. It was not easy for him to develop the school to its scale today."

Chen is a little cagey about the finances of SIAS, which doesn't stand for anything even though it looks like an acronym. (It is named for a company Chen dreamed up for a master's in business administration project at UCLA. He didn't graduate there but eventually got an MBA from Willamette University in Salem, Ore.)

He says he has built SIAS on funds from relatives, tuition fees and a $12-million loan from Bank of China. He says he has yet to receive a salary, only a $500 monthly travel and expense allowance.

The school is set up as a nonprofit enterprise, though China's rules on such operations are vague. "So far we haven't made any profit," he said, calling his work a philanthropic endeavor.

Despite the university's rapid growth, getting it off the ground wasn't a piece of cake. In the early years, the school struggled to get hot water into dorms. Recruiting qualified teachers has been a challenge, as has financing, especially after the local government flip-flopped on its land grant.

Chen just keeps forging ahead, pressing the flesh on both sides of the Pacific. He hooked up with Fort Hays State University in Kansas, another school in the middle of wheat fields, and arranged a partnership that lets SIAS students receive an American degree without setting foot in the States. Taking classes by video and over the Internet, SIAS students earn a dual bachelor of arts degree: one from SIAS and a general studies degree from Fort Hays.

Academic partners

For Fort Hays, China was a way to help reverse declining enrollment and revenue. The university now has 4,200 students in western Kansas and 5,200 off campus -- 2,200 in China, most at SIAS.

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