Bridging Great Wall

Bridging Great Wall

U.S.-China Educational Exchanges

Breaking Down Misconceptions

Nina Robinson spent two summers in Beijing studying Mandarin when she was 16 and 17 years old. Even before these visits, she considered herself open minded — but her travels really opened the floodgates to a mind-blowing learning experience.


“They opened my eyes. In China I learned that although we are quite different, similarities outweigh differences. We all want a great education for our children, we want happiness, and we yearn for success. These are three large things that we share no matter what area of the earth we occupy.”

Robinson, a 2010 graduate of the School Without Walls Senior High School in Washington, was a participant in the DC China Scholars Program. “My family’s reaction has been nothing but excitement, especially my mom, who is a single parent. She pushed me to apply to the program.”

This summer, six other D.C. students followed Robinson’s path to Beijing. All had at least a year of Mandarin language classes and hailed from local schools offering Chinese studies, including School Without Walls, Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, and Roosevelt Senior High School.

The D.C. participants joined 32 other teenagers from cities across the country for five weeks of intensive language study in Beijing as part of a program sponsored by Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), a nonprofit that’s the brainchild of a group of Americans who live and work in China. The three-year-old program is competitive, open to public school students, and offered at no cost to participants. APSA receives funding help from the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth and technical help from the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

APSA’s local partner is the DC Center for Global Education and Leadership (CGEL), a nonprofit funded by private donations that believes D.C. Public Schools can become a national model for a high-quality, globally focused education in an urban school district. The group’s founder, Sally Schwartz, came up with the idea after serving as director of international programs for D.C. Public Schools from 1999 to 2008.

“The China scholars program is fabulous,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “It exposes students to career opportunities in a global context. They go to language classes every morning and in the afternoon go on field trips, visit a business, take calligraphy classes or martial arts. On weekends they take longer excursions or do community service projects.”

Miguel Alcazar, 18, another recent high school graduate, was part of the program a year ago. His interest in participating was sparked by the 2008 Beijing Olympics and images of the Great Wall, as well as a teacher at Wilson High School. “Learning to adapt to a completely different culture and struggling to learn Mandarin every day — it was pretty tough,” he said.

Nina Robinson spent two summers in Beijing studying Mandarin as part of the DC China Scholars Program, which is open to public school students and offered at no cost to participants.

Learning Chinese is definitely difficult, agreed China scholar and Wilson graduate Nathan Kohrman, speaking by phone while he was still in Beijing. But he said all the work is more than worth it. “Coming to China made me realize we do not live in a Western-centric world anymore,” Kohrman said.

“In the afternoons, we’re taking trips by bus and metro,” he explained. “We plan them ourselves and get to meet the real people who live in Beijing.” In fact, chaperones and guides are not allowed to translate for the students.

“Initially it’s scary, but we’ve been able to make our way around. When someone understands you, it’s so awesome — it’s almost addictive. It feels great,” Kohrman said. “You can see with your own eyes that all that work studying has paid off!”

Robinson’s payoff was also both profound and personal. “My first summer we traveled to Mutianyu, a section of the Great Wall,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Diplomat. “It was hot. I was climbing down and one of the ladies from the countryside who made a living selling drinks must have seen the tiredness in my face and pulled out a mat for me to sit on. At this time I knew very little Chinese, but what I did know I used.

“I bought a Coke from the lady and shortly after she offered me a piece of bread from her own belongings. Not only was I able to communicate using the language, but it meant something to her that I was trying. I felt there was a bond there. When I look back at this moment, it is always something that moves me.”

“They all come back changed,” said Paula Koda, an APSA board member. Koda and her colleagues “believe that the American education system needs to do a better job preparing students for the new global world. When we look at other nations, we see we’re woefully behind.”

As part of that preparation, APSA’s China Scholars Program holds Beijing evenings in which its American students meet professionals working in Asia — not only top execs from Coca-Cola or Google, but also young people of many nationalities working in fashion design, film, animal rights, environmental causes and various nongovernmental organizations.

Nathan Kohrman, second from right, a graduate of D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, stands inside Tiananmen Square with fellow students in the 2010 China Scholars Program, whereby teenagers from across the United States travel to Beijing for five weeks of intensive language study.

Kohrman was impressed: “They all said, ‘China is the place to be,’ and they all have jobs that are fantastic opportunities, ones they would not be getting in their home countries.”

Meanwhile, the program’s community service projects take students to private schools for the children of migrant workers, many of whom came to Beijing to help build the city’s grand Olympic Stadium. The workers have a status similar to that of undocumented immigrants in America, Koda explained.

“This year, 18 of our students went to [a] school serving migrant students about the same age as ours,” she said. “They taught some basic English. There were morning icebreakers, games with words, lunch, and in the afternoon [their] students taught our students a song and we all sang it together. We taught them line dances — they really got into it — and in the end it was hard to get the two groups apart. They want to stay in touch.”

The American scholars also volunteer at a boarding school for younger students. “It’s very lean, eight to a room, a board and a mat for a bed, basic meals,” Koda noted.

Alcazar found himself spending a weekend there during his visit in 2009. “The Dandelion School was a migrant school where we spent a couple days without showering and in the hot sun, just teaching the kids English and playing games with them. I really loved that,” he recalled. “It was just nice to help out and to experience what it means to not have much. It really gave me an idea of how lucky I am in America and how spoiled, and I’m not even what you’d call rich.”

The DC China Scholars Program is part of growing wave of interest in Chinese language studies throughout the United States, along with a burgeoning number of educational exchanges between China and America.

Mandarin studies are still relatively uncommon in U.S. schools, but the numbers are definitely on the rise, according to the Asia Society, which notes that Chinese language programs are now offered in 44 states. Virginia is among those with “sizable programs.”

Similarly, a study by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that between 1997 and 2008, U.S. schools were increasingly teaching Arabic and Mandarin in spite of a downward trend in foreign language learning during that timeframe.

Shaozhong You, minister counselor for education at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, center, stands with the 2009 participants in the China Scholars Program, which is sponsored by the nonprofits Americans Promoting Study Abroad and DC Center for Global Education and Leadership, with financial assistance from the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth and technical help from the Chinese Embassy.

Chinese studies are offered throughout the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system at all levels — examples include Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest, John Eaton Elementary School in Cleveland Park, and Strong John Thomson Elementary, which has two full-time native Mandarin instructors on its teaching staff.

According to Schwartz of CGEL, most of the credit for the growing presence of Chinese studies in D.C. schools — along with the DC China Scholars Program’s arrangements in Beijing — goes to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and specifically, Shaozhong You, the embassy’s minister counselor for education.

“In 2005, I learned that DCPS was trying to promote learning foreign languages in the schools,” You explained. “I met with former Superintendent [Clifford] Janey and asked him, ‘What can we do for you?’ We exchanged ideas and discussed options.”

One idea was to engage Hanban teachers. Hanban is the nickname for the Chinese Language Council International, an NGO affiliated with the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education. Hanban supports Chinese studies in other countries and sends them trained teachers from China who may serve several-year stints abroad.

“In 2006, Dr. You facilitated the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between D.C. Public Schools and Hanban to bring experienced teachers from China to selected D.C. public schools” Schwartz said.

“Any school that wishes Hanban to help can make a request,” You explained, noting that Hanban can provide schools with materials such as teaching games and textbooks as well as the instructors. Schools across the country have taken notice, and this July, 132 Hanban teachers flew to the United States from China to begin teaching in 20 different states.

Hanban also has a program for administrators and teachers. You, an educator himself who was a professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, arranged for a DCPS delegation to travel to China in 2007 to sign a cooperation agreement with the Beijing Municipal Education Commission.

“We later had a good meeting with [D.C. Education] Chancellor Michelle Rhee and expect the continuation of the two agreements,” he said.

The surge in cross-cultural collaboration isn’t limited to Washington, D.C. “Your Department of Education is working with the Ministry of Education in China on an e-learning language initiative,” You noted.

That initiative was touted at a May education conference in Denver, Colo., that featured high-level Chinese and American officials. The two countries had committed themselves to “an open and freely available e-language system,” establishing Chengo, a jointly developed two-track program to teach English and Chinese online.

You also cited the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) started in 2006 under the Bush administration that supports students studying “critical languages” such as such as Arabic, Chinese and Farsi — describing it as “important and effective.” This year, 20 of the 38 students in the China Scholars Program received NSLI scholarships.

NSLI partners with the U.S. Department of Education as well as the Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (the latter two links drawing some scrutiny and criticism here in the United States, as have Hanban’s close ties to the Chinese government).

This past May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong co-chaired a people-to-people exchange in Beijing that promoted nationwide collaborations in education, science, sports and the arts. “Tens of thousands of Chinese and American young people are studying in each other’s countries each year,” Clinton said. “We want those numbers to rise.”

And so does her boss. President Barack Obama, during his November 2009 visit to China, announced a “100,000 Strong: U.S. Students in China” Initiative to have that many Americans studying Mandarin in China over the next four years — which China is supporting with 10,000 “bridge” scholarships.

Meanwhile, here in D.C., CGEL is nurturing networks of schools and teachers committed to global education, exploring ties to charter schools and seeking funds for an after-school program offering Mandarin and Arabic. It’s all part of the group’s broader vision that global education means far more than an occasional language class here and there, but is an entire perspective, or prism, through which teachers teach and students learn. “Our view is that in a global world, ‘international’ needs to be a part of everything,” Schwartz said.

In a similarly holistic mode, You said, “We should encourage not just advanced students but a whole society to take part in foreign language learning and cross-cultural studies.”

The DC China Scholars Program needs no persuading. Miguel, Nina and Nathan all intend to continue learning Mandarin in college — Miguel’s goal is to be trilingual, fluent in English, Spanish and Chinese. Nathan, with an eye toward employment in Asia, will pursue international studies.

Nina said her China experience also shaped her career choice. “I plan on going into the Foreign Service, following either the political or the public diplomacy track that works closely with the people.”


DC Center for Global Education and Leadership

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States

National Security Language Initiative for Youth

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.