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WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER

Arriving in Pittsburgh early this year, Wu Lirong saw something that took her mind off the daunting prospect of a semester away from her job, her friends, her husband, and her 12-year-old daughter back in China.

Not normally considered a tourist attraction, a typical Western Pennsylvania January blizzard brought back happy memories for Wu, the associate dean of nursing at Suzhou Health College and one of RMU's latest Rooney Scholars.

Snow is almost unheard of in Suzhou, a charming old city filled with parks and pagodas in China's subtropical coastal belt. But Wu grew up in the northern province of Heilongjiang, which shares a border with Siberia. "I like the winter in Pittsburgh," she says. "The snow reminded me of my childhood. It was so exciting."

There have been several surprises for Wu and Gu Ping, two nursing professors who spent the spring semester living in a house on the RMU campus. Besides the snow, they also couldn't wait to tell the folks back home about the deer in the woods behind their house. "In Suzhou you
have to go to a zoo to see them," Wu says.

Since it began in 2004, the Rooney Visiting Scholars Program has brought 16 visiting professors and scholars to RMU from Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. Scholars conduct research, teach a class, or conduct a service project during their semester. They also give public presentations on their fields of expertise and their home countries."I think it's a phenomenal opportunity for us to pursue the "global perspective" core value the university established years ago," says Associate Provost Lawrence Tomei, who oversees the program. "This is the walking, living, breathing example of how this core value can change the lives of our faculty and our students."

Previous scholars have included a bioinformatics expert from India, an actuarial science professor from Australia, and a corporate branding guru from Slovakia.

Gu is associate dean of the nursing school at Nanjing Medical University, where she once studied, intending to become an obstetrician. Her professor instead suggested she had a talent for teaching, and could be a bigger help in academia at a time when China had a shortage of professors. She and Wu both are impressed with RMU's nursing computer simulation programs, and by the give-and-take of American college classrooms.

Living in America is an adventure, and sometimes challenging. Because grocery stores don't stock Chinese cooking spices and condiments they're familiar with, Wu and Gu make do with tofu - and a lot of rice and chicken. Both love badminton, which is widely popular in China. But without a court nearby, they have resorted to regular ping pong matches at the Jefferson Center. They can explore further afield if they wish; besides a two-bedroom house in Colonial Village and a monthly stipend for living expenses, Rooney Scholars get a car, and Tomei said one scholar drove as far as Florida.

The program is designed to build international connections that work in both directions. Nine RMU nursing students and two faculty members are visiting China this month, where Wu and Gu will give them tours of Suzhou's massive nursing school, which has almost 5,000 students, and Nanjing's smaller school of about 600 - still twice as many nursing students as RMU has.

It won't be the first trip for Lynda Davidson, dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences. She was part of an RMU delegation that visited Suzhou and Nanjing in 2007. "For us, the scholars provide a window to diversity and a worldview that our students wouldn't get any other way," Davidson says. Gu says she is eager to host the visitors. "In recent years tremendous changes have taken place in China," she says. "I hope I can show the group from RMU how we are changing health care and education in China. Then we will have a productive cooperative program."

The next Rooney Scholar is Michal Maoz, a biotechnology professor and head of the Center for Teaching and Learning at ORT Braude Engineering College in Israel. Maoz's institution last summer became the 15th to sign an international academic exchange agreement with RMU. This fall, Maoz plans to help the university create a center similar to hers, with a focus on improving both students' study skills and professors' teaching skills.

RMU Trustee Patricia Rooney, whose personal financial support makes the visiting scholars program possible, said travel has broadened her outlook. (It will again, now that her husband has been named ambassador to Ireland.) "I just think you come to realize that there's a vast world out there that we need to know about," she says. Rooney encourages faculty and students to make an extra effort to welcome visiting scholars and spend time with them outside the classroom. She's struck up friendships with several, including Syed Tanvir Wasti, a Turkish civil engineering professor who bowled Rooney over with his deep knowledge of the work of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Wasti still sends her Christmas cards. "He's one of those fellows who send those wonderfully lengthy letters,"she says, "but I actually read his because they're from Turkey."