La Grande native holds unique distinction

By Dick Mason, The Observer February 15, 2013 08:59 am

La Grande High and Eastern Oregon University graduate Prestin Lewis holds a unique distinction.
La Grande High and Eastern Oregon University graduate Prestin Lewis holds a unique distinction.

by DICK MASON / The Observer 

Prestin Lewis is first American to graduate from Chinese university 

Prestin Lewis, a graduate of La Grande High School and Eastern Oregon University, became accustomed to being a minority during the three years he recently lived in China.

Today, Lewis lives in Eugene but he is still part of a minority — a prestigious minority of one. 

Lewis holds the distinction of being the first American to graduate from the University of Science and Technology of China, one of the nation’s elite universities. The school is part of the C9 League, China’s equivalent of the Ivy League. 

Lewis received a doctorate degree in management science and engineering in 2012 from the university. Only .5 of 1 percent of the students in China taking a national entrance exam qualify for admission into USTC.

“Its students are China’s best of the best,” Lewis said. “I wanted to have the chance to study with them.”

Becoming the first American to graduate from the University of Science and Technology of China, Lewis said, is like being the first student from China to earn a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. USTC has been accepting international students since 2005. Lewis was one of only 49 international students at the university, which has an enrollment of about 15,000. 

Lewis was admitted to USTC on the basis of his grade point average, while earning a master’s degree in business administration from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and his years of experience at the corporate level of business. Lewis was a vice president for Wells Fargo when he was admitted to USTC. He was based in Las Vegas where he was a region program manager.

“I was looking for a school to earn my Ph.D. I wanted to be involved with the second largest economy in the world,” Lewis said. 

USTC is in Hefei, a city of 5.7 million in east China. Lewis found the people of Hefei and those everywhere in China to be warm and hospitable.

“It is a wonderful, friendly country,’’ he said.

The former La Grande resident found that college students tend to work harder than those in the United States. He believes this is why Chinese students tend to show more respect for their professors. Students speak less in class and seem less distracted, all measures of greater respect. 

Lewis also found that in China, professors give students in doctorate programs more one-on-one attention than they do in the United States. 

Lewis is a 2001 graduate of EOU, where he was in its honors program and a 1994 graduate of La Grande High School. He credits LHS teachers with having a major influence, including Larry Kroll. 

Lewis said Kroll, who is now retired, spent a lot of time working with him one-on-one and taught him a tremendous amount about project management. Lewis said the lessons Kroll taught him have served him well at the university level.  

Higher education is something Lewis has an intuitive understanding of since he has been around it all his life, as the son of Merry Beth and the late Ralph Lewis. His father was a highly regarded geography professor, who taught at EOU from 1974 to 2005.

Prestin Lewis, just as his father did, has teaching skills. He put them to good use while in China where he instructed MBA courses at USTC. Today, he is teaching management classes at Northwest Christian University in Eugene.

Prestin Lewis earned his doctorate in China at the same time his wife, Jennifer, was completing her work for a doctorate in nursing at the University of Utah. She made several trips to China while her husband was there. She gave guest lectures to nursing students during her visits.

Jennifer and Prestin Lewis plan to return periodically to China for years to come. Prestin speaks like he cannot wait to step foot in China again.  

“I will be excited about going back,” he said. “I miss the Chinese culture and the warm welcome guests and visitors receive.’’