Alumni Q&A with Frank Cai, professor


Frank Cai has been around the world, but his love for KU and the Midwestern culture makes him want to keep coming back. This time, Cai brought 15 scholars from Beijing Foreign Studies University, where he teaches English and Western civilization. These students were at KU from July 14-25 for a program to gain a first-hand experience of life in America. We sat down with Cai to learn more about it:

KU degree: Master’s (2003) and Ph.D. (2012) in American studies

Current title: Professor of English and Western civilization at Beijing Foreign Studies University

What first brought you to Kansas?

Honestly, I didn’t know much about Kansas. I still remember back to 2001 in the American embassy in Beijing, when everyone told the ambassador and his colleagues their destination in America. When it was my turn, I told him “I’m going to study at the University of Kansas.” I can never forget the tone from a businessman who happened to pass by. He said “Kansas, I’ve never been to Kansas, why would you want to go to Kansas?” On my application, I wrote “I am an American Studies major, so please send me to the real part of America.” I didn’t know at the time it would be Kansas. I wanted the real, genuine taste of American culture. I had thought of some other places, but not Kansas.

Then in a training session, a former Chinese Fulbrighter heard I would be coming to KU. She strongly urged me to come here because she had been there before. She said “It’s a pity that more Chinese don’t want to visit the middle of America, but that is the real part of America, in terms of culture and history. It is very unique in terms of values and people: they are genuine and hospitable.”

In China, many people think they have been to America, but where have they been? Either the East Coast or the West Coast. Few of them have come to the center of America. My students here are shocked to see and explore the mysteries of the Midwest, the true part of America.

What is the program’s history? What are your goals in this program?

We started this program two years ago in at the University of Cambridge. We moved to Lancaster University, then we came to KU. This made us realize how important it is for students of this diverse background to go abroad to benefit their academic growth, and increase their confidence on the job market. We also encourage them to be broadly and globally minded. As the best graduate students at BFSU, they should be equipped not only with the language skills, but with some modern ideas of global strategic thinking. So I am thinking about doing this program here at KU every year. I want those people who have never been to America to come here to a place where I believe they can find the true American culture.

What are the activities the students are doing?

It’s a fantastic schedule filled with lectures, workshops, and seminars. So far we have been given many lectures, spanning history, race, literature, immigration, and roundtable discussions here and there too. The students are also very interested in learning about Lawrence. None of these students have ever been to America before. Some students also had doubts whether this university could be a real big university as they would imagine about Harvard and Yale, but from the professors and their lectures, this university is by no means below their expectations. All of the deans they have met have impressed them quite a lot; they gave the students a lot of information about KU and the Midwest. Multiple students have told me something like “Frank, this visit has changed my life. I used to think about applying at Harvard or Yale, but this is a very good place for me to come and study.” And these students who come here are very bright; they could go to Harvard or Yale if they wanted to.

How were these students selected to be a part of this program?

It was a very competitive process. First, we accept applications from a large body of graduate students at BFSU, and then we give them an admissions test, which is very challenging. Out of all the applicants, we will narrow it down to around 30 students, then 12 students. And they must receive good grades and pass a very tough interview.

Tell me about your time at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

It’s a long story; in 1994 I took a competitive entrance exam for the master’s program at BFSU, and I became a master’s student. That education gave me a new view of America. My American studies professors were very good, very knowledgeable. They gave me a new window through which I could see what America is America, and I learned that America is not one perfect thing, but it is a good combination of everything. It was a time of curiosity for me; I was just out of Shanghai International Studies University, where I was given a very good Fulbright education. After all these years, I have never lost my interest in American studies.

Who were some of your biggest influences during your time at KU?

My biggest influence on me was some of my professors from the American studies program at KU. Professor David Katzman impressed me a lot. Every time he helped me, I asked him how I could repay him, and he said “It’s easy, just be good to your students when you become a teacher. Work hard for them.” Also, Professor Bill Tuttle was very nice. He invited me to experience the holiday atmosphere at a Thanksgiving dinner, we talked about KU basketball, the history of Thanksgiving. Also Professor Norman Yetman was my advisor for my master’s studies here at KU and Katzman was my Ph.D. advisor.