After a spending a semester more than 11,000 miles from home, eight Chinese athletes and their two coaches will leave Madison next week, taking with them newfound skills and experience from more than four months of study at the University of Wisconsin.

The first venture of its kind, UW professor Li Li Ji started the Chinese Champions program with the help of Chancellor Biddy Martin, who’s trip to China in March resulted in the birth of the program.

Eight students from Beijing Sport University arrived in Madison July 23 and will depart on Dec. 15, Ji said.

Looking back on the semester, Ji said the experience benefited both the athletes and UW.

He said the success of the pilot program sent a positive message to the Chinese who were paying close attention because of the prominent place the athletes have in Chinese society.

For the athletes, Ji said they gained valuable experiences, new friends and improved their English speaking skills.

“What you see on the surface is that they are more outspoken, social but…they feel they could do well outside of their special sports event, and they could function as a student and as a communicator,” Ji said. “I think these are more subtle changes, and it’s going to influence their lives.”

Dean of UW’s Division of International Studies Gilles Bousquet describe the semester as one of “mutual learning.”

“People who are influential…sometimes ideology, government separate people…but the people-to-people bond is what’s going to last, and that’s what we’re building,” he said.

The program saw so much success that during her last trip to China in November, Martin signed an agreement to have the Chinese Champions program run for the next three years, Bousquet said.

The future programs will start during the summer and run through the fall, similar to the pilot program this semester, Bousquet added.

The next group of athletes will arrive in summer 2011, and Bousquet said the delegation that made the trip to Beijing in November met some of the potential candidates.

One thing future programs will do differently involves starting work with English as a Second Language prior to their arrival at UW, Bousquet said.

Bousquet said the ESL group would connect with UW via the new Cisco telepresence or through Skype and other Internet-based technology.