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Whitman in China program a life-changing teaching opportunity for alumni

WALLA WALLA — Opportunities at Whitman College don’t end when a student graduates; alumni of any year can, for example, apply to teach in China through the Whitman in China (WIC) program. Recently six were chosen for this year’s cohort.

“They’re going to be fabulous,” said Susan Holme Brick, director of off-campus studies, about those selected after a competitive application process. And the Chinese universities are thrilled to have eager, young native English speakers from Whitman to work with their undergraduates who want to perfect their language skills.

Brick said those chosen need to have a tremendous interest in teaching Chinese undergraduates and other abilities that include resourcefulness, being able to “think on their feet.”

“I really admire them,” Brick said about the more than 160 Whitman alumni who have taken on the challenge since the program started in 1982.

The young graduates must be very self-reliant in their new positions in China, Brick said.   They’re picked up at the airport by their university liaison, and then, after arriving at one of the three universities Whitman partners with, they sometimes get a textbook or might be shown a final exam so they know what needs to be taught. But then, just like other new faculty members, they’re on their own to develop syllabi and teaching plans. The expectation is that they know how to do the job — and they are left to do it.

However, to help the participants ease into the job, Whitman College holds an interactive three-day teacher training each spring that includes instruction from Kay Fenimore-Smith, associate professor of education and chair of Whitman’s education department, and three alumni who recently returned from their year teaching in China. One day is spent learning the basics about how to teach English as a second language; the other two are spent learning about living conditions, cultural differences between the United States and China, health and safety tips, “survival Mandarin” and the logistics of independent travel in China.

WIC instructors typically teach 12 to 16 hours per week, and may have as many as 60 students per class for courses such as conversational English, American culture and, occasionally, business English and writing. Brick said the new teachers receive a modest salary, medical insurance, housing, international airfare and a stipend for other pre-departure expenses.

Brick said the alumni have reported profound, albeit sometimes challenging, experiences in China. Many have stayed on for an additional year or two, usually in teaching positions. She knows of one WIC alumnus who was hired by a pharmaceutical company after his teaching contract ended and is now a business consultant in Beijing.

The late Whitman Professor David Deal established the program to give Whitman alumni an opportunity to teach and experience Chinese culture first-hand. The program started at an interesting juncture in the country’s history. China was transforming — the Cultural Revolution had ended in 1976, and the country had only started opening its doors to the West in 1978 — when the first Whitman alumni arrived in 1982 to teach.

Chas McKhann ’79, now a Whitman professor of anthropology, was one of those pioneering alumni assigned to teach at Yunnan University in 1982-83.

“At that time there were only about two dozen foreigners residing in Kunming, mostly teaching at different universities,” he said. “We got a lot of personal attention from the provincial government and our schools, but living was pretty spartan. Hot water, for bathing in particular, was in short supply.”

McKhann said his “interest in minorities in southwest China dates directly to that year, and some of David Deal’s classes a few years earlier.

“It changed my life. I was so fascinated by local cultures, and there was so little written about them in English, that it was a great opportunity for a young anthropologist. I had only had one year of grad school at the time, but wound up going back to China in 1985-86 to do my dissertation research, and have been going back ever since — by myself, with my family and with students. China has changed tremendously in these three decades, but I have many good friends there dating back to the early 1980s, and I appreciate having had a chance to experience those changes with them and their families.”

Now, six alumni are preparing to experience this life-changing adventure:

Alumni Jeremy Balch ’10 and Lisa Mattson ’10 will teach at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an, China, which was the Chinese capital for centuries and has many historical sites such as the famous 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors.

Balch, who majored in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, has previous experience in China. In the fall of 2009, he studied traditional Chinese medicine through the Pitzer College in China study abroad Program. In summer 2008, he studied conversational Mandarin Chinese as a Whitman Summer Studies in China participant.

Mattson, who majored in theatre and politics, has worked as an English tutor in Portland, Ore. Her study abroad experiences include studying European politics and migration issues in Freiburg, Germany, and Mandarin Chinese in Kumming, China, through the 2008 Whitman Summer Studies in China program.
Christopher Huong ’10 and Susannah Lowe ’10 will teach at the School of Foreign Languages at Yunnan University in Kunming, China, the capital of Yunnan Province, and a city undergoing rapid modernization in a region known for its ethnic diversity and scenery.

Huong, who majored in politics and has worked as a tutor, studied Mandarin Chinese in Kunming in 2008 through the Whitman Summer Studies in China program. Lowe, who majored in sociology, has worked as an America Reads intern for four years.

Lauren Schneider ’10 and Marie Westover ’10 will be at Shantou University in Shantou, China, a port city located on the east coast of Guangdong Province near Hong Kong. They will be English interns, a position that generally includes such responsibilities as leading discussion sections of English language courses and overseeing undergraduate extracurricular activities in English, such as the English student newspaper and speech contest.

Schneider, who majored in French and Spanish, studied abroad in Argentina and France. Westover, who majored in biology, has worked as a biology tutor and mentor, and participated in Whitman's Semester in the West program.

The Whitman in China program is funded in part by generous support from the David Deal China Exchange Endowment.

For more information about the program, see the Whitman in China site.

— Virginia Grantier

Published on Jun 25, 2010
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