August 15, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

Cottingham, an information systems major and Chinese language minor, recently landed a $4,500 scholarship from the Benjamin A. Gilman Foundation to fund his China studies

By the time Donnie Cottingham reaches China, the Olympics will be over. “We get there the day of closing ceremonies,” the Calvin senior lamented.

Cottingham, 21, an information systems major and Chinese language minor, recently landed a $4,500 scholarship from the Benjamin A. Gilman Foundation to fund his China studies

Olympic longing

“It’s really cool seeing all the places they show on TV, and it makes me think I’ll be there in a few weeks,” he commented on the Olympic coverage. “It makes me kind of mad that I’m not already there, but it gives me something to look forward to as well.” Cottingham is impressed with the Chinese team’s showing in the games so far: “My word, they're giving the U.S. a run for the medals!” he said.

Cottingham grew up in Quincy, Ill., nearby the Mississippi River. “It’s not a great river, but at least it's water,” he allowed. He has had a longtime fascination with Asian culture. “I thought it would be cool to study over there, and I thought it would be cool to learn some language before I went.”

It was his interest in computers, however, which he first pursued in high school, that drew him to Calvin in 2005. “You can be so creative, and then there’s the problem-solving aspect,” he said of his chosen field. “I knew that Calvin had a great computer science department.”

Language quandary

Cottingham held off studying an Asian language until his sophomore year at Calvin. Then the only question was which Asian language to study: “I was debating on Japanese and Chinese, and I talked to an advisor,” he said. “He told me that China was on the rise and that it would be good for me to know (Chinese) even if I stayed in the U.S.”

The aspiring student of Chinese commenced language instruction with Calvin professor of Asian language and literature Larry Herzberg. “He keeps class really entertaining,” he said. “He definitely eases us into the language so we don’t drop out right away because it's pretty difficult at first.”

The mountains of Yangshou

Cottingham first visited the China on a Calvin interim trip last May: “I’ve wanted to go back ever since,” he said. “The people are so friendly, and … . I guess it's just fun being around a whole different culture.” The class traveled throughout southeast China to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other destinations. He was struck by the vistas of Yangshou: “A lot of people see the paintings of mountains in China, and they have no idea that that’s how it looks over there,” he said.

When Cottingham returns to China, it will be to Capital Normal University in Beijing, where he will take 16 credit hours.

Non-traditional destinations

His Gilman scholarship is part of a program (sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the Institute of International Education) designed to encourage undergraduate students to study in non-traditional study-abroad destinations.

“It’s extremely important for Americans to learn, in the shrinking world, about places other than Europe,” said Herzberg. “China, with 22 percent of the world’s people and growing importance on the world’s stage, is extremely important for Americans to know.”

Herzberg, who traveled in China with Cottingham last spring, had high praise for his student: “He is a very bright but very modest young man. He has done superb work in Chinese language for the past two years and definitely deserves the Gilman.”

New opportunities

Cottingham is already thinking of the vistas beyond Calvin, vistas that may encompass China; he would like to work there. “I would like to maybe get an IT job over there or anything really …,” he said. “Any type of opportunity I think would be really great.”

Cottingham in Shanghai

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