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WisBusiness: Student exchange company gives Wisconsin a new relationship with China

By Laurel Alexander
For WisBusiness.com

China’s “one-child” policy has encouraged wealthy Chinese parents to invest as much as possible in their child’s education, and a new Wisconsin-based exchange program is ready to help Wisconsin schools take advantage of this.

Joan Martinie said she had the idea to create United States Exchange International after working for many years as a physician in Jinan, China, and in the cultural exchange business in Shenzhen, bringing overseas performers in the arts to China.

Martinie said that her brother and sister are physicians, and that she was born into a family of two Chinese physicians with many siblings were also primarily physicians.

After she moved to Wisconsin, Martinie said, many of these relatives and friends in China started asking her if she could help their child study abroad.

The result is USEI, which would focus on physicians and other high-income parents in China, Martinie said.

“They have money,” she said, “And they want the best for their child.”

“We have more than 1,000 medical school classmates who are potential USEI clients,” she added.

Even with a willing source of students and parents in China, Wisconsin colleges and universities have experienced a hard time attracting exchange students.

Martinie cites UW-Milwaukee as an example. It set a goal in 2003 of having 5 percent international students included in its student body, which at the time totaled 24,875 students. But a number of years later, the campus has yet to reach 3 percent foreign students.

Martinie said her program would be able to help Wisconsin schools recruit international students because most of those schools are not even on the lists of international agencies, and this makes it very hard for Chinese parents to know about them.

If Chinese parents were able to find out about Wisconsin schools, Martinie said, they would be very open to considering them. Wisconsin is already well-known in China due to its ginseng exports, almost all of which go to China and Hong Kong.

One of the key features that will set USEI apart, Martinie said, is the services it will provide for students once they arrive in Wisconsin.

There are huge student exchange companies in China, some of which send as many as 100,000 students abroad every year. However, Martinie said, these companies do not provide any services for the students once they’re overseas.

Because of this, many students find themselves without resources once they’re overseas, she said.

“Many students struggle ... when they are abroad,” she said, “When they come here they need to immediately switch to English.”

She said most international students don’t know how to find the local pharmacy, the nearest grocery store or where to buy clothes.

The USEI curriculum would include orientation to local stores like supermarkets, clothes and convenience stores, as well as training in popular software programs, U.S. school structure and cultural expectations, and of course, English.

The program would also provide pre-arrival counseling and be available to the students should they need a resource while in school.

“We will provide everything here that they need,” she said.

Martinie said that she expects USEI to run on a flat-fee based model, beginning with sale through its website and through her hundreds of existing Chinese business relationships.

She said that she was not worried about the Chinese agencies attempting to copy the USEI model, because of the difficulty of gaining Chinese parents’ and students’ trust.

“The business relationship is not easy to build up,” she explained, “They do not have USEI’s professional network.”

Martinie said USEI would provide real estate services for Chinese parents interested in investing in local real estate.

Strict government regulations in China make it difficult to invest internally, and at least in urban areas, Chinese property prices can be astronomical. Second-homes require a 60 percent down payment and most “property” only consists of the building, not the actual land.

By providing this service, USEI would be helping to boost Wisconsin’s flagging housing market, while giving Chinese parents a stable overseas investment possibility.

USEI was among the semi-finalists in the 2011 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The contest will culminate June 7-8 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference, to be held at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.

-- Alexander is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.

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