Whitman in China program celebrates 30-year anniversary
Alumni of the Whitman in China program gather this weekend, Sep. 28—30, to celebrate the program’s 30-year anniversary. Since its creation in 1982, the program has been sending Whitman graduates to China to teach English for one year.
“It’s one of the first programs administered by a small liberal arts college to send alumni to teach English in China since China’s opening up to the west in 1978,” said Director of Off-Campus Studies Susan Holme Brick.
So far, almost 200 alumni have participated in the program. The program not only sends students to China, but is host to teachers and students from three Chinese sister universities. The students, known as Sherwood Scholars, attend classes of their liking, and the teachers act as native speakers and commonly help teach in the Chinese department for a year.
Kevin Nie, a Sherwood Scholar and resident of Lyman Hall, is visiting this semester from Shantou University. An English major, Nie discussed his motivation to undertake this study abroad opportunity.
“The curriculum of the English major in China is relatively limited. If you want to master a language, you must know the culture, and the best thing is to come to an English-speaking country and get cultural experience firsthand,” he said.
Whitman is also host to native speaker Jiangli Qu, a teacher from Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, in the Shaanxi Province, who is helping teach in the Chinese department.
Before the Whitman in China program—or for that matter, Asian studies at Whitman—a modern Chinese historian by the name of David Deal was hired as a history professor. Deal was the catalyst that grew the Asian studies program and later created the Whitman in China program. Initially, he taught an array of history classes about different Asian countries. Later he became the dean of faculty and hired more Asian studies professors to expand the department. Deal passed away in 2001.
Each year, a lecture is held in Deal’s honor focusing on a topic in the field of Asian studies. This year the speaker is Orville Schell, author of Virtual Tibet and Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York. Schell’s lecture concerns the lens through which the U.S. views Tibet. The lecture, originally scheduled for Sept. 29, will be held later as Schell was prevented from speaking due to illness.
One of the weekend’s events is a panel, “China’s Transformation: Three Decades Through the Lens of the Whitman in China Program,” in which alumni of WIC and related faculty and staff will more intimately elucidate and reflect on their experiences.
The possibility of a Whitman in China program opened up in 1976 after Chairman Mao Zedong died and China began to open up to the United States. Many were curious about the previously exclusive China, and in 1980, Deal took a group of fairly wealthy wheat farmers from Walla Walla. The farmers, Donald Sherwood among them, were impressed by the trip, and decided to give money to foster a program connecting Whitman to Chinese universities.
With the help of the farmers’ funds, Deal created the Whitman in China program, with its first sister school in Yunnan.
“The goal of [the program] was to develop cultural exchange between the United States and China at an academic level,” said Charles ‘Chas’ McKhann, professor of anthropology and chair of the WIC committee. “There was very little exchange going on at that point in time.”
While in graduate school in 1982, McKhann went on the first WIC trip to Yunnan University in Kunming, the program’s first partner school. A few years later, Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an was introduced as a partner school, and about 10 years ago Shantou University in the province of Guangdong was added.
Students aren’t required to be Asian studies majors to participate in the program. In fact, any alumnus with an interest in teaching can apply. After being chosen by the Whitman in China committee, participants go through an intensive three-day orientation on campus, including teacher training, learning about cultural differences and taking “survival Mandarin.” They also take a TEFL (Teaching English in a Foreign Language) certification over the summer preceding their trip.
Whitman alumna Cindy Chen ’12 is teaching this year at Shantou University.
“As a recent college grad, I’m so excited to be able to take on a lot of responsibility and have my own classroom. It’s been an adjustment going from being a student in college to teaching college students, but I’ve enjoyed it so far because we’ve received a lot of training here,” said Chen in an e-mail. “There’s quite a few foreign teachers here in the English department so it’s been great to learn from their years of experience.”
Alumni make serious impacts on the Chinese university students during their year in China. Whitman in China’s teachers venture to schools that American teachers wouldn’t usually go to, as opposed to universities in globalized Shanghai or Beijing.
“We wanted to give Chinese students in those cities that are a little off the beaten path an opportunity to study with native speakers of English,” said Brick. “It can be a really powerful experience for [these students] to study with a native speaker and hear about what life in the U.S. is really like, instead of just hearing about it from local media.”
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