For Kayla Bell, the trip to China simply reaffirmed what she already knew – that she wants to teach English abroad for a year or so before settling into a teaching position in her hometown of Chicago.
The trip that took Bell, Wang and their peers from East Central Illinois to East Asia is part of a new program in the College of Education called the Greater China Initiative, which makes study abroad practicable for undergraduate preservice teachers and provides an opportunity for them to delve into research.
Bell and Wang were among 18 students who spent three weeks in China in late December and early January learning about the country’s education system and its culture while conducting research for projects in the affiliated course.
“This is a pioneering effort on the part of the college to provide an opportunity for our students to go overseas and have a meaningful experience – not just be a tourist, but to really get their hands dirty in a professional way,” said Ronald L. Jacobs, a professor of human resource development and the director of the Office of International Programs, the unit that co-sponsors the initiative with the support of campus partners and the Yew Chung Education Foundation in China.
Most undergraduates in the teaching curriculum find it difficult to fit in a study abroad experience because the courses in the teacher education program are sequential. Therefore, the study trip was designed to take place over the winter break so as not to interfere with students’ schedules.
“Our goal is that every undergraduate will have an overseas experience, and we have allocated $500 toward that for each of our undergraduate students in the teacher education curriculum,” Jacobs said.
More than 40 students in the college applied for the study tour/course, and 18 students were selected – two each of freshmen, sophomores and seniors, along with 12 juniors.
“Most of the applicants were very strong,” said Lucinda Morgan, the college’s on-site coordinator in Shanghai and the developer of the study tour to China. “We looked at grade-point average and class standing and had applicants write an essay about why they wanted to go and how they thought the experience would benefit them as future teachers.”
Having an on-site coordinator such as Morgan living and working in Shanghai enables the college to build relationships with alumni, prospective students, educators and educational organizations in Asia. This networking effort is expected to foster opportunities for more Illinois students to study, teach and conduct research abroad.
“Everybody is curious about coming to the U.S. to study, and there tends to be funding from other countries’ governments to support that kind of activity, but it’s a little different for American students because there’s not that ready support for them,” Jacobs said. “That’s why Illinois has such a unique situation: There are funding opportunities for students if they want to do it.”
Students were responsible for their own transportation, lodging and other costs of the study tour. However, a large portion of their expenses was defrayed by a $20,000 grant from the Freeman Foundation, which the college obtained through the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies on campus. Each student also received a $500 scholarship from the college, and a few students also attained scholarships from the Illinois Study Abroad Office.
Morgan, who lived in Shanghai for several years before starting her doctorate at Illinois; Kathy Ryan, the assistant dean for academic affairs in the college; and Sheila Dean, a professor of curriculum and instruction, accompanied the group.
Pre-departure class sessions during the latter half of the fall semester provided students with an overview of China’s educational systems and teacher preparation programs as well as with fundamental lessons in cultural protocol, speaking Mandarin and traveling safely.
Students were required to conduct a research project on a relevant topic, beginning their literary research in the fall and collecting data and interviewing people in China.
“They had to prepare a research proposal before the trip so they would have an idea what they wanted to look for when they were in China,” Morgan said. “It makes the students more connected when they’re in China if they’re looking at a specific topic, so they’re not overwhelmed.”
Wang and her partner were interested in learning about China’s mandatory college entrance exam – the gaokao (gow-kow), a controversial high-stakes exam that determines who will go to college and the caliber of institution they can attend.
Bell and her partner focused on English as a second language instruction in China, where learning English is often mandatory from kindergarten through secondary school.
“I wanted to see their perspective on how they were learning English and if there was something that they could change to make it more interesting or fit them better,” Bell said.
During their trip, the students toured 16 schools that reflected the breadth of China’s education system – preschools through universities, top-ranked urban schools as well as impoverished rural schools, public and private institutions and a school for the blind.
Faculty members and administrators from East China Normal University in Shanghai delivered lectures about the evolution of China’s education system, detailing its recent reforms and the issues specific to urban and rural school systems.
Undergraduate students from ECNU also shared their experiences in the university’s teacher preparation program.
For Wang, who attended school in China until the age of 9, when her family emigrated to the U.S., it was thought-provoking to return to China and observe its elementary education from the dual perspectives of a former student and a future educator.
“Some of the curricula has not changed, but some schools are trying to improve or include different teaching methods, such as having students work with partners,” Wang said about Chinese primary education.
Throughout their stay, the Illinois students gained more than 30 hours’ teaching experience – tutoring students from Yew Wah High School, teaching English to kindergarteners in a migrant community in Shanghai and planning lessons and teaching at a primary school in Nanjing with preservice teachers from Jiangsu Institute of Education.
At the school in Nanjing, Bell and two partners taught a class of about 50 kindergarteners numbers and animal names in English.
Although the focus of the trip was scholarly, the students did have opportunities to be tourists, exploring Shanghai with their ECNU student partners, taking a boat cruise on the Pearl River and visiting museums, the Yu Yuan Garden and the Shanghai World Financial Center.
After returning to the U.S. on Jan. 11, the students began finalizing their research project proposals. They will submit their completed projects to the campuswide Undergraduate Research Symposium, and those whose work is accepted will present at the April 18 event.
“The college wants to increase the number of education students who conduct research and participate in the symposium,” Morgan said. “In previous years, education students have been so busy with their other course work that the symposium didn’t get on their radar, although there tended to be a lot of science and business students who entered.”
Undertaking learning opportunities such as the study tour and research project of their own volition may enhance students’ competitiveness for teaching positions after college, Jacobs said.
“The composition of students, communities and schools is much different from what it was in the past,” Jacobs said.
“When teachers go into the classroom, they need to be prepared for all the cultures that they’re going to be interacting with. And this study tour opens doors for them and gives them opportunities to think about, such as teaching overseas instead of being confined to school systems in Illinois or the Midwest. They can become global citizens, and that might be very important for their self-development.”
Although Wang said she hopes to find a teaching position in the Chicago area after college, her parents, who recently relocated from Illinois to Rochester, Minn., are hoping that she will find a job near them. However, Wang’s trip to China prompted her to realize that there may be opportunities for her to teach there too, especially since she’s bilingual and can speak and read Mandarin.
“The trip was an eye-opening experience,” Wang said. “I feel that my horizons were broadened. Because I can communicate in both languages, I can consider working in the U.S. or in China.”
Bell said she has applied to a “competitive program” that she didn’t want to name just yet but hopes will offer her the opportunity to teach English in Colombia next fall.
As the college broadens its international outreach, the destination of the study tour may change in future years. However, the Greater China Initiative is just one of the international-intercultural experiences available to the college’s students.
This summer, the college is starting another new overseas experience – an eight-week teaching program in China that will give student teachers two weeks in Shanghai followed by weeklong engagements at schools in five outlying provinces.
The College of Education has an ongoing relationship with the University of Macau and every spring hosts students from its Honours College. In prior years, the college hosted undergraduate students from Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia.