Monday, August 24, 2009

Down to the Wire

Tomorrow's the big day for most of the 19 recent Skidmore graduates who will be teaching in China this summer -- the day that the seven of the eight who are going to Sun-Yat Sen University will fly to Hong Kong from Boston and Newark and ten of the 11 who will be teaching in Dongying and Qufu will be flying to Beijing from Boston and New York. (One teacher will fly to Hong Kong next week and another will fly to Beijing from India.)

Crossing the international dateline, they'll land in China on Wednesday. The Sun-Yat Sen contingent will stay overnight in Hong Kong and be picked up by their hosts on Thursday. They'll begin their teaching assignments September 10. The Dongying and Qufu contingents will have less time to prepare, beginning their assignments September 1 and 2.

We've asked members of the Class of 2008 who taught in China last year to pass on their reflections and advice. As the next crop of teachers tends to a myriad last-minute pre-trip details, we share the following perspectives from Karrin Varucene below.

Q: Are you glad you did it?

Karrin: I am absolutely glad I did it and wouldn't take it back for anything. At about the halfway point, I remember doubting my decision, feeling lonely and eager to return home. However, after entering the second semester refreshed from time spent traveling (mostly in the south where it was warm and sunny) and with a new outlook on how to approach my role as teacher, I found myself in disbelief that the whole experience would soon be drawing to a close.

I'm glad I did it for many reasons:
  • I made closer relationships than I ever expected to with my fellow Skidmore teachers and especially with my Chinese students and colleagues.

  • I got a view of China that most tourists never get.

  • I got to live, eat, breathe (unfortunately?) China for almost an entire year, something that often seems like a far-off dream.
  • I got to travel and see a part of the world the way I most prefer to: from the inside.
Q: What are the main lessons that the experience taught you?

Karrin: I learned to have patience, with myself and with others. I learned to have confidence in myself and my abilities, having been thrown into completely uncharted waters--standing at the front of the classroom, charge with the responsibility of somehow imparting knowledge. I learned things about the Chinese people and culture that one simply would not learn in a book. And that is, perhaps, most valuable.

Q: Have you changed your career plans as a result of the experience?

Karrin: I had never considered teaching as a profession before going to China. But I loved the experience so much. It is such a gratifying feeling to stand in front of a classroom, explain something to the best of one's abilities, and see 35 heads nod with understanding. It is even more meaningful to build personal relationships with certain students who come to see you outside the classroom, perhaps to discuss class material, and sometimes to discuss non-academic subjects.

Sharing life knowledge and exchanging opinions and ideas with my students was so enjoyable that I am now considering teaching as a profession, though I have decided first to focus on my interest in book publishing. My teaching experience in China was such a great one that I fear most of the passion and enjoyment came from such a unique and isolated circumstance. I'm not entirely sure those charged feelings would occur for me in an American classroom. However, if publishing does not work out, I intend to explore a career in education.

The experience overall did give me some much-needed self-confidence, especially when it comes to applying for jobs. I currently have a number of resumes out to most of the major publishing houses on the East Coast.

Q: What advice do you have for the next crop of Skidmore teachers in China?

Karrin: I suppose I would say: It is all what you make it. Many of us Qufuans agreed that we could see how one could be miserable in Qufu (as many of our students claimed to be). It is still "developing," quite filthy, and about three decades behind us in many ways. However, there is also much to love about it. Qufu has character, charm, great food and an authenticity not found in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. It is "the real deal," so to speak. We all seemed to make the unspoken decision to fall in love with Qufu, and that was it.

Also, I would say:
  • Don't be afraid to try new restaurants and food.

  • Make yourselves available to students and colleagues. There are truly wonderful relationships to be made if you make the effort and put yourself out there.

  • Enjoy the quiet and simplicity that the yearlong experience has to offer -- you'll miss it once you return to the U.S.

  • Take calligraphy lessons if you can! It's an unbelievably cool (and challenging) art form.

  • Always have some TP and sanitizer on-hand.

  • Be sure to ride in a rickshaw. (Don't forget to bargain!).

  • Soak it up and take it all in.

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