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Graduates discover new outlook in China

Drake University’s Teach in China program offers graduates a culture shock that, for many, permanently changes the course of their lives. Since 2004, over 153 Drake graduates took on the role of teacher and student in the cultural experience known as Drake’s Teach in China program. For 25 graduates chosen every year, the program offers first-hand involvement in the rapidly growing economy and vibrant culture of China.

The Teach in China program enables Drake graduates to live, research and teach in one of several Chinese cities for the course of a year. Applicants can be of any academic major. Participants spend a year in China teaching a course at one of Drake’s partner institutions to both secondary and university-level students.

Neither Chinese fluency nor former international experiences are pre-requisites for participants. Instead, they typically teach courses that focus on the English language and American culture and history. The program has often had “a lasting effect in terms of personal or professional development,” said Kirk Martin, the director of the program.

Jason Esch

Jason Esch, one former student in the program, graduated from Drake in 2008 and began teaching in the Hebei province of Shijiazhuang, China, the year of his graduation. After the one-year term of his tenure ended, he decided to continue to live and work in the city; he has now been there for the several years.

His first year in China, Esch taught English to university-level students.

“Students turned out for class because they wanted a chance to practice English,” said Esch, “and also to ask real questions about foreign life.”

He often found himself drawing from his majors and attempting to be an “ambassador” for America. “It’s much harder to know everything about your own country than one thinks,” Esch said, who admitted he sometimes has difficulty answering culturally charged questions.

As a whole, the Teach in China program impacted Esch’s life in immeasurable ways. Perhaps the biggest influence was meeting his Chinese wife. Esch initially planned to stay in China for the designated year, but he is now working in the country and is weighing the options of pursuing a settled life in China.

Both Esch and his wife said they would rather raise children in the United States.

Esch said that in China, careers are a messy thing and most people commit to multiple careers. He is currently employed as the assistant dean at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang. Esch also works to establish programs with English-speaking countries, and he has recently opened up a Visa company with a friend. Esch looks to explore business opportunities in China as well, and he plans to open a Subway franchise sometime this year.

Business ventures aside, Esch attributes his greatest successes to helping Chinese students achieve study abroad dreams.

“Two weeks ago, I was in a restaurant, and an old man in a wheelchair came up to me,” said Esch. “He was with his wife and daughter. Apparently, I taught his granddaughter and helped her pass her test, and now she is in a university in New Zealand.”

Esch said that the grateful man stood up to shake his hand. Since the Chinese put so much emphasis on education, Esch understood how important his job of teaching is.

“If you take away culture, all people are essentially the same,” said Esch. “They want to work and contribute, want to raise a good family and want those around them to be happy and comfortable. Culture distorts what happiness is, and what a good family (is), but everyone is just trying the best they know how.”

Katherine Albrecht

Katherine Albrecht, a Teach in China participant during the summer of 2005, came across similar revelations. She had majored in law, politics and society at Drake and was interested in graduate study in international relations. She saw the Teach in China program as an opportunity to gain international experience, and she eventually came to acquire that experience and more.

In China, Albrecht taught English conversation classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and she also taught a class that consisted of community members ranging from teenagers to senior citizens. She was stationed in the Beibei District of the Chongqing municipality in southwest China.

“I was unsure, initially, whether I wanted to commit to something more long-term like Peace Corps,” said Albrecht, “but teaching in China seemed like such a great opportunity that I was completely on board once I committed to the program.”

After her time with the program, Albrecht realized she had an interest in teaching and studied for her master’s degree in secondary education at Drake. She currently teaches at Des Moines Area Community College and also does substitute teaching around the Des Moines area.

“Working with students and teachers from a different culture has made me better at working with diverse groups of learners here in Des Moines,” said Albrecht. “The skills I developed as a teacher in China definitely gave me a bit of a head start once I began my teacher preparation program at Drake.”

Besides contouring the path of Albrecht’s professional development, her experience in China challenged her to see cultures, and individuals, in new ways.

Though Albrecht’s time in China strengthened her teaching capacity, she also recommends the program to future graduates who aren’t pursuing a career in education.

“Even if you don’t want to become a teacher, you will benefit immensely from learning to work in different cultural environments,” she said. “You’ll find that even years after you return, you’ll be very interested and engaged in what goes on in that part of the world, and hopefully everywhere else,”Albrecht said.

Albrecht also attributes developing a keener sense of adventure and increased flexibility to the program. Albrecht may be returning to China in the near future and is currently looking to apply for a teaching job in Taiwan, Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Xian Zhang

Xian Zhang, a 2010-11 Teach in China participant, gained a cultural understanding from the program that hit very close to home.

Zhang, who is ethnically Chinese, was born in China and lived there until he was five.

“Before I went, I thought I understood most of Chinese culture, but I learned so much while living there about traditions I hadn’t known about and just about Chinese people in general,” said Zhang. “That was just a really important connection for me to make between myself, my family and my people.”

Teach in China led Zhang to professional gains as well.

“I was an LPS and sociology double-major at Drake but always had an interest in international affairs,” he said. “Teach in China was a great way of gaining more cultural and practical experience abroad, as well as having a year off to travel and give more thought to my career interests.”

In China, Zhang taught English speaking to three segments of undergraduate students, and he taught segments of American Legal Studies and American Foreign Policy to graduate students.

“We were able to have some engaging discussions,” said Zhang. “It was interesting discussing topics such as the due process of law, cases regarding the First Amendment and the Arab Spring in this context because the Chinese government has very different ideas about these issues compared to Americans.”

Zhang is currently a master of arts candidate in international development with a certificate in global health at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. Professionally, Zhang said that his Teach in China experience was valuable in several respects.

“My professional interests actually lie at the intersection of gender and health in Africa,” said Zhang. “I have worked abroad before, but this additional experience helped my graduate school applications. I also think it helped me secure my upcoming 2012 summer internship with the Department of State.”

His advice for those considering the program?

“I would recommend this program to future Drake graduates, even those whose professional interest may not lie in China or international affairs,” said Zhang. “It doesn’t hurt your job or graduate school applications to have an experience in which you had to negotiate a new culture. I would advise that before you apply, think about what kind of person you are. Teaching for a year abroad is a big commitment, and it is very difficult to be away from your loved ones and own culture for such a long time.”


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