This past spring, for the first time in Hope’s history, not one but two May Term classes traveled to China. In “China’s Modern Growth,” students examined the nation’s economic policies and business development while touring four major cities as well as Hong Kong. In “China: Land, Wildlife and Culture,” students explored the ecosystems of China’s mountains, rivers and countryside.
On the face of it, this could seem like a study-abroad city mouse and country mouse kind of story. In a way it is, but of course it would be. In Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen — home to some of the world’s most famous businesses — Hope students saw firsthand what’s being done to affect the world’s second-largest economy. In the Chinese mountains of Tangjiahe Nature Preserve and lowlands of Minjiang River — home to some of the world’s most unique biodiversity — Hope students observed firsthand the likes of panda bears, takins, gingko tree forests and millennia-old irrigation systems unique to the world’s fourth-largest country.
Yet, for as divergent as these two courses’ locations were, their lessons did share one commonality: Each exposed Hope students to historical, cultural and political aspects of a country that is often at the forefront of U.S. and international conversations. Now those exchanges have stuck with them well beyond China’s borders.
That is the whole point of an international study experience: lessons learned make their way back home, get unpacked and then are used.
“Now that I am back at Hope, my time in China has stuck with me by expanding my international interests here on campus,” says senior Andrew VandeBunte, a business major from Byron Center, Michigan, who enrolled in “China’s Modern Growth.” “In China, we were able to interact with Chinese university students which was a unique way to hear their stories and experiences. This makes me want to build more international relationships on Hope’s campus.”
Senior Clare Da Silva, a biology major from Danville, California, concurs, as she took note of cultural comparatives while on the “China: Land, Wildlife and Culture” May Term. Travel abroad heightens one’s awareness of a home-country’s normative ways of life. Da Silva noted American social conventions in sharp contrast with Chinese ones.
“Since my return to the United States, I have become more aware of cultural norms in American society that emphasize individualism and govern how we interact with one another,” she says. “In China, I maintained a greater respect for the collectivism that has characterized the growth and fellowship between members of society. By comparing and contrasting the two cultures, I have been able to reflect on different ways to combine the visions of each country to become a more informed human being with a deeper sense of responsibility to myself and others.”
Such words of introspection are music to the ears of Hope educators. In hearing them, they know that some of their course goals and objectives have been met, no matter the subject matter. To be able to teach those lessons in China was both a necessity and a privilege.
“China is big enough and important enough that it really can’t be ignored,” explains Dr. Stephen Smith, professor of economics and co-leader of the “China’s Modern Growth.” Smith, who grew up in Hong Kong and specializes in international economic development and growth, adds, “We felt in terms of the international footprint of the Department of Economics and Business, we just had to have something that invited students specifically to think about China.”
Dr. Tom Bultman, professor of biology and co-leader of “China: Land, Wildlife and Culture,” agrees from both a biological as well as a interdisciplinary standpoint. “China is huge player in the world in all sorts of areas,” he says, “so it’s really important for our students to get some exposure beyond what they read in the newspaper.”
For Dr. Jianhua Li, associate professor of biology and co-leader with Bultman of “China: Land, Wildlife and Culture,” teaching in China was a brief homecoming — just as Hong Kong was for Smith. Li grew up in Henan in central China, and he wished to show Hope students not only his rural homeland but its cultural and urban features too. Biological outings stood side-by-side on the itinerary with trips to The Great Wall, The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
The goal was to show as much of a spectrum of Chinese life as possible in a short period of time.
“We wanted (our students) to see China in a kind of totality because in the media we either see Shanghai with its big, modern buildings, or we see very remote or very poor areas. Like in the United States, it’s not just one thing or the other. It’s more like a continuum of different things.”
Under Dr. Li’s tutelage, Da Silva got it, particularly from the biological vantage point. She was struck especially by China’s strong commitment to improve conservation efforts throughout the country, a realization she would have missed if not on Chinese soil. “Ecotourism has become essential to the preservation of scarce resources and has allowed for more opportunities to increase revenue in Chinese societies,” she explains. “Throughout this May Term, I was amazed by the fairly successful implementation of government policy to protect natural environments and the species that inhabit them.”
The experience of studying in China positively changed VandeBunte’s outlook not just on China but on life. Before his May Term, he had never traveled outside of the United States. Now he has an affinity not just for international travel but for the lessons that can come of it.
“I fell in love with the Chinese culture and pace of life during May Term,” VandeBunte says. “And I came home with an interest in learning more about other places of the world. I think this can only help as I grow older by expanding my knowledge and preparing me to interact with multiple cultures.”