With service such a valued tradition at Texas A&M University, and China such a desirable destination, it’s no wonder scores of Aggies applied for spots on a three-week service-learning project to China this summer.
As Aaron Gonzalez, a junior philosophy major from Burleson, Texas, puts it, “As an Aggie, I have always taken a service-based approach to any program I have been a part of. When I heard about an opportunity to volunteer by assisting other teachers, as well as helping Chinese students to hone their English speaking skills by exposing them to American culture, my motivation was not only to share my culture but also to learn about Chinese culture, something I had always been interested in.”
Ultimately, 17 undergraduate students were chosen ― along with six faculty members from the College of Education and Human Development with study abroad experience ― to accompany Dr. Cindy Boettcher to teach and volunteer as language partners at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“Tsinghua is the most competitive university in China,” explains Boettcher, a clinical professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture. “They take the top 3,500 students from the more than nine million high school students who take college entrance exams. It’s the MIT of China. And, since English is a required course throughout elementary school, along with Chinese, math and science, all Chinese college students already speak English.
“By 2015, China will be the largest English-speaking country in the world.”
The 3,500 students attending the Tsinghua Summer English Camp were there for an intense boot camp consisting of lectures plus three oral language lessons per day focused on the cultural themes established for the camp: sports and music, traditions unique to America and hot topics around the world. The purpose: to learn how to present the material fluently in English.
“The teaching and the learning were intense,” says Boettcher. “Not only did we prepare five hours of lectures and lessons each day, but the students also had to participate in singing, speech, debating and video production competitions.
“The Aggie students worked right along with them, helping with everything from proper pronunciation to production techniques. The Tsinghua students were incredibly brilliant, but our students were up to the challenge. They were absolutely phenomenal about connecting with the Chinese students and participating in all the same activities, including hopping on bikes to go eat, playing games and immersing themselves in the culture.”
Boettcher, who has twice been awarded The Association of Former Students’ Distinguished Teaching Award, says it was also a wonderful experience for the future teachers in the group, especially those who will be teaching in cities like Houston, where there are currently 132 different languages spoken.
“It’s only when you’ve experienced being the international student that you can teach effectively and interact with your second language learners with empathy,” she adds.
“What I did not expect,” says Gonzalez, “was that over the course of the three-week program, the students that I was supposed to be teaching ended up teaching me more. After our daily lessons, I would stay behind and attempt to write a Chinese character or two. There was a group of about three or four students each afternoon that would stay behind with me and drill me on stroke order, intonation and what each component of the character stood for. The classroom wasn’t the limit either. I would meet up with them for lunch or an impromptu dinner that would eventually turn into late night Mandarin lessons, quick tidbits of proper Chinese table manners, or I would learn just a little more about the ideas they hold.”
There were many similarities between the students from Tsinghua and Texas A&M, including their strong family values. Dedication to service is also a core value for both student groups, although in China, service is not optional. After leaving the Tsinghua Summer English Camp, the Chinese students were headed for three months of required military service.
“‘It is our duty,’ was a phrase we heard often,” Boettcher states. “It really opened up the eyes of our Aggie students to see how much was expected of these Chinese students and their genuine desire to give back to their country.”
There were also contrasts. For example, Boettcher explains that Chinese students don’t choose their own majors. They are chosen for them, whereas Texas A&M students have an abundance of choices. Chinese students not only speak English but are surprisingly up to date on everything going on in the United States, while the students from Texas A&M are not as knowledgeable about events in China. For the 17 Aggie students who participated in this program, however, that changed.
Boettcher says, “Our students had a broad, high-impact service-learning experience. They were like sponges; they soaked up everything.”
Molly Ellis, a sophomore communication major from Pleasanton, Texas, says, “My visit challenged every stereotype I had ever encountered about a nondemocratic country and allowed me to find value in the people who love where they live.”
Gonzalez adds, “I left to teach them about American culture and ended up coming home with the Chinese culture and people deep in my heart.”
“We achieved what we hoped to achieve with this program,” says Boettcher. “We wanted Aggies to learn about China, to come back with an understanding and appreciation of the Chinese people, about a different kind of government and culture. That’s big, because the relationship between the United States and China is one of our most important ongoing relationships. That’s what studying abroad and gaining a global perspective is about.”