A display case approximately four feet tall stands prominently inside Shanghai Book City, the largest bookstore in Shanghai. It contains more than 100 copies of A True Liberal Arts Education, a book aimed at Chinese students who are thinking about attending college in the United States.
Thanks to Lin (Vanessa) Nie '10, anyone who happens to flip through the book will stumble upon stories of a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, more than 7,500 miles away.
Nie, one of the book's three co-authors, wrote about her experiences at Franklin & Marshall as part of an effort to highlight the advantages of liberal arts colleges for Chinese students. First published in May 2009, the book quickly sold out its first printing of more than 8,000 copies, which were distributed throughout big cities in China.
"In China, there are already many books about studying overseas in the U.S., most of them being straightforward and informational," Nie says. "Our goal was to write about our experiences in an honest, creative, thought-provoking and reflective style."
The New York Times mentioned A True Liberal Arts Education earlier this week in a story about the increasing number of Chinese students attending colleges and universities in the U.S. In October, Inside Higher Education featured an interview with the three authors.
The idea for the book—which is written in Chinese—came from Yongfang Chen, a senior at Bowdoin College. Chen asked Nie to join him on the project, but Nie hesitated because she was only a sophomore. However, she seemed like the perfect fit; apart from being an ardent supporter of the liberal arts, she used to write a weekly column about the liberal arts for a local newspaper in Shanghai. After receiving encouragement from her parents, she jumped on board.
The next step was to recruit a third author. Nie asked a friend from Bucknell University, Li Wan, to join her in the collaborative effort. Wan agreed, and the three students launched the project. Each author produced a stand-alone section in the book, divided into chapters on the challenges and rewards of adjusting to higher education in the U.S.
"We each have very distinct styles, and we wanted diversity in the book," says Nie, a mathematics and psychology double major and a dancer. "I tried to reflect on the culture, the people and the academic and social environment. I thought a lot about what influenced me, and how."
John Campbell, professor of psychology, learned about Nie's book during a Hackman Scholar project last summer. "What's remarkable is Vanessa's unassuming nature," Campbell says. "She's a wonderful student, thoughtful, creative and bright. Her level of interest shows an understanding of what it means to be a liberal arts student. It's extraordinary that she's chosen to share her experiences with other students."
Nie hopes her book will educate Chinese students about the analytic nature of the liberal arts. Higher education in America tends to be more abstract, she says, than what Chinese students experience.
"Creativity and self-reliance are stressed at F&M," she says. "It's up to students to exercise knowledge on their own. I need to write a research paper for my dance class—I guess I wouldn't do that in China."
Nie is excited to see how the book influences Chinese students. "We didn't write the book to become celebrities," she says. "None of us care about the money, either. We just want to share our experiences."