OSU Students Building a Little Dynasty in China

August 9, 2008
Patrick McAloon.

By Kristy Eckert (THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH)

Patrick McAloon might pass unnoticed on the Ohio State University campus, but, hey, he had his 15 minutes in China.

Fame didn't come easily.

Before millions of Chinese TV viewers, McAloon, using their native tongue, delivered a speech about how hot peppers helped him meet his wife, answered questions about Chinese culture and smacked bamboo pieces together while rhythmically reciting a poem.

The effort was enough to earn McAloon one of three first-place prizes awarded in the annual Chinese Bridge Competition, a popular televised contest in which college students from around the world demonstrate their Chinese-speaking prowess.

"It was fantastic," said McAloon, a 2004 winner who is now pursuing a doctorate. "Everywhere we went it was, 'You're the big winner!' It was pretty exciting -- a lot of fun."

His fame didn't extend stateside, of course, but Ohio State has caught the attention of the contest's producers, who will visit the campus today and Thursday to learn the secret of the university's success.

Since the competition's inception in 2002, McAloon and two other OSU students have placed first -- a record for one university.

"In terms of the contest and everything, we're kind of without peer," said Ohio State professor Galal Walker, who teaches Chinese and directs the Chinese Flagship Program. "It makes us feel good about the quality of students we get in our program and the quality of training they get."

About 300 OSU undergraduates major in Chinese. But the answers sought by the visiting crew from Hunan Satellite TV can probably be found in Walker's advanced-degree program, one of three such programs in the country.

Each quarter, Walker brings in two or three people from China, including professors and business executives, to teach courses. Students learn not only the language but also business etiquette and other particulars.

That knowledge, combined with a focus on speaking performance and a solid coach in Ohio State instructor (and former contest judge) Huanzhen Zhao, might correlate to Bridge Competition victories.

"We're training them to operate in fairly high-level business and high-level government environments," Walker said.

Contestants first compete in regional contests in their home countries, with the winners advancing to China for a tour of the country and the finals.

Last weekend, Ohio State students dominated the 2008 New York regional, taking first-, second- and third-place prizes. All three are students in the Chinese Flagship Program.

First-place finisher Donald Newman, 22, is looking forward to the international competition this summer.

"I'm obviously pretty excited," he said. "We really blew everybody out of the water."

Joshua Lotz, a first-place winner last year who is working on his master's thesis in China, said the highlight of winning is the prize of a full scholarship to a Chinese university. He will begin work at Xiamen University after graduating from OSU in the summer.

Lotz ended up with a bonus prize, too: "I met my fiancee, Matilda Lenell, at the competition. She was representing Sweden."

The two will marry in May in China, he said, probably saying their vows in Chinese.