December 1, 2020

Confucius Institute instructors denied visas

Two Chinese volunteer instructors will arrive at Webster University this October to teach at Webster’s Confucius Institute, one of 83 Chinese language and culture schools in the U.S. The two women were originally scheduled to arrive in August but were delayed due to a U.S. State Department directive issued in May.

When Webster Confucius Institute Director Deborah Pierce learned of the delay, she was worried the instructors, Zhou Xuan and Guo Qian, would never make it stateside.

“These two young women — their life was on hold,” Pierce said. “I had already met them, and they had already made their plans. It’s a lot to plan to be away from home for a year.”

In May, the State Department issued the directive to all Confucius Institutes, including the one Webster hosts. Instructors at the Institute offer Chinese classes at Webster as well as local high schools and middle schools. The directive declared that by teaching K-12 students, certain Confucius Institute teachers across the country were in violation of the use permitted by their visas.

Oriental furniture on display at the Confucius Institute offices downtown, originally built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Phillip Pierce, Director of Government and Business Relations at Webster’s Confucius Institute, said late Webster Groves residents, Jack and June Young, gave the furniture to the Institute. PHOTO BY DAN DUNCAN

The teachers in question were volunteers — typically graduate-level students from the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) — who were studying to teach Chinese as a second language. Webster-sponsored instructors obtained J-1 visas, which permit exchange students to work for a university while studying.

The directive stated that these visas did not permit them to teach pre-college students and the proper visa is the J-1“teacher” designation. The directive also said the instructors were “expected to return home and apply for an appropriate exchange program if they so desire.”

When Pierce learned of the policy directive, she said she was concerned instructors would be forced to return early to China. The typical stay for a volunteer instructor is August through July — almost a whole year.

“(A week) later, they sent another (policy directive) and said you (the instructors) don’t have to go home,” Pierce said.

Pierce said her attention turned to the 2012-2013 academic year. She did not want to cancel the Chinese language courses the Confucius Institute provides to local schools such as Cor Jesu Academy and Mallinckrodt Academy.

A solution was found in the form of local Chinese-American instructors, who would be paid to teach the courses. But Pierce still wasn’t satisfied. The two Chinese volunteer instructors had already committed to Webster and were expected to arrive in August.

The Institute needed to secure the appropriate visas for the two new instructors. Webster does not have the authority to sponsor the J-1 “teacher” visa, so a new sponsor was necessary. Because host universities and colleges wanted to keep Institutes running, they have paid local school districts to sponsor visas for the now-unaffiliated teachers.

Pierce said she initially asked the local private schools that the Institute works with. None had the proper authorization, so Pierce then turned to the St. Louis Public School District and the Missouri Department of Education. Both denied the request.

Finally, the Institute, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education, made a deal with the Institute of International Education (IIE).

“It’s an organization that you pay and they bring in teachers from overseas,” Pierce said. “So, it’s legal. It just costs us something that we didn’t intend to pay.”

Now, the two women, Xuan and Qian — who are graduate students from the BLCU — are expected to arrive in October. Their arrival will follow the conclusion of Zhōngqiū Jié, or the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday. They will be accompanied by a full-time Chinese instructor, who will stay for one year, and a new Chinese director, expected to stay for two years.

“It’s helpful to have these two directors because I understand Webster’s administration and policies,” Pierce said. “The Chinese director understands how things need to be done on the Chinese side and has direct access to them (the Chinese government), so it works well.”

Pierce’s husband, the director of government and business relations at Webster’s Confucius Institute, said he expects the Institute to offer Chinese classes to the general public by late fall.

Pierce said she is hopeful something positive will come from this ordeal. While the Institute is primarily housed at Webster’s downtown campus, Pierce said the additional staff members might allow the Institute to bring events to the Webster Groves campus.

“I’m hoping they (the instructors) can do some things with us here on campus, like calligraphy classes or Chinese cooking classes,” Pierce said. “One of them is a tai chi instructor. Maybe they can help people who want to learn Chinese here without credit.”

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