OREM — Utah County business leaders recently told the head of the local college they need graduates with Chinese language skills and knowledge of the world's most populous country.

Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University, is responding by making China a yearlong focus on the Orem campus.

This summer, faculty from each of UVU's seven colleges spent two weeks in China, studying the communist system, rural education, business development and manufacturing. They also met with Chinese university and government officials to lay the groundwork for future research collaboration and student exchanges.

The UVU International Center plans to organize programs about a different country each year.

"Our thought was China was a great place to start because there are a lot of things going on with China," said Steve Crook, the center's assistant director.

Crook helped organize and lead the trip, armed with his experience of working for several years in the shoe industry in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The group visited an excavation site of terra cotta warriors, various temples and other historical landmarks. They also witnessed firsthand the rapid changes overtaking China's 1.3 billion people.

"Shanghai's skyline changes every time I go," Crook said.

UVU's ongoing interest in China includes hiring two new professors this year for language instruction and another course in either literature, history or politics.

Those will become tenure-track positions next year, said David Yells, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Ultimately, UVU wants to take the lead in training Chinese language teachers in Utah's schools, where 7,500 high school students and 1,275 more in elementary schools are expected to study Mandarin this year.

"Romance languages' time has passed, and people are looking at Arabic, Russian and Chinese," Yells said. "It's a make-it-or-break-it kind of skill to have."

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., now the U.S. ambassador to China, has promoted Chinese language instruction as the best way to build relationships based on peace and prosperity.

UVU is wasting no time building on the foundation laid with this summer's trip. Ernie Carey, dean of the College of Technology and Computing, is heading back this week for a second trip to explore working with Chinese researchers on a digital media project.

"In a university, it's always the faculty that drives everything," Crook said. "We want to get them interested and knowledgeable and to start thinking of their own curriculum and how they can integrate China."

For a list of upcoming seminars and speakers within the "You Can't Ignore 1.3 Billion People" spotlight session on China at UVU this fall, visit www.uvu.edu/international/engage.

Topics will include economics, arts and culture, politics and women's issues.

The program fits directly within the school's mission statement, which says UVU "fosters learning that expands intercultural experiences and transcends cultural differences."

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com