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ICC trip broadens students’ horizons

Students travel to China for study abroad program


From left, Grace Newton of Peoria, Andrea Bonetto of Roanoke, Rachael DeLost of Peoria Heights, Claudia Cummings of Edwards, Ileah Hall of Washington, Illinois Central College International Education coordinator Tia Van, Marisa Wiegand of Mackinaw and Noah Bond of East Peoria stand in front of Summer Palace in Beijing, China, during an ICC study abroad trip during the summer.


By Dylan Polk



Posted Sep. 2, 2015 at 6:00 AM




Educators say the most effective method of familiarizing one’s self with a culture — as well as the best way to learn a foreign language — is to immerse one’s self in that country.

That sort of immersive education is what a group of students from Illinois Central College experienced firsthand this summer.

Seven ICC students — Noah Bond of East Peoria; Rachael DeLost of Peoria Heights; Grace Newton of Peoria; Ileia Hall of Washington; Marisa Wiegand of Mackinaw; Claudia Cummings of Edwards; and Andrea Bonetto of Roanoke — spent five weeks studying at ICC’s sister institution, Xiamen Huaxia Vocational College in Xiamen, China, from May 17 to June 22.

Accompanied by ICC International Education coordinator Tia Van, students experienced firsthand the differences between American and Chinese culture and education, and were granted the opportunity to visit popular historic sites.

“I think the most important thing they learn is practical, real-world knowledge that you can’t learn in a classroom and you can’t learn through listening to someone talk about it,” Van said. “You have to experience it for yourself. They learn a lot of independence and vulnerability; learning how to ask for help, I think, is one of the main things that they learn as well.

“And the American way isn’t always the right way. I think a lot of them came back with that idea too. There’s no right or wrong society; everything is catered to the people and environment that you’re in.”

“In general, (studying abroad) builds confidence in students. It gives them exposure to other cultures and sensitivity to other ways of life,” said Barbara Burton, director of International Education at ICC.

The Chinese way of life can differ greatly from Americans’, according to Bond and DeLost.

Sweet, sugary foods, for example, are far less common than in the United States. Cheese and other dairy products like yogurt are also something of a rarity, and alcoholic beverages are far less potent than they are in America.

At home, they said, the Chinese are accustomed to smaller living spaces, a contrast to larger homes and yards in America. Chinese students are typically the only children in their families, DeLost said, according to China’s family planning or “one-child” policy.

In the classroom, students are generally more respectful of teachers and professors, and the testing process to determine a student’s career path — the National Higher Education Entrance Exam, or “Gaokao” — is much more regimented.

“We like to take breaks; they don’t. They like to power through for four hours; I don’t,” Bond said. “(Professors) started to realize after the first two weeks, ‘You know what? Maybe we should give them like a 10-minute, maybe 5-minute break in between there, because they can’t really do four hours straight of Chinese,’ which was very true. We can’t do that. We’re not used to just four hours of lecture.”

Finally, access to information and public behavior are closely monitored by a Communist government, they said. A photo of an armed guard could result in legal penalties, DeLost said, and Internet websites such as Google and Facebook are heavily restricted, if at all available.

Despite the many differences, DeLost said she never moved past what she referred to as “the honeymoon phase,” the initial phase of culture shock characterized by a fascination, love or deep appreciation of the host region.

“I stayed with that throughout the whole trip, so everything was more, ‘Oh wow, this is better. This is awesome,’” DeLost said. “... One of the big things that I really missed was my family, so to adjust to that, twice to three times a week I would either email them or I would Skype them, so that helped a lot.”

For Bond, the sight of his dorm room on the campus of Xiamen Huaxia sent him past the honeymoon phase into what’s known as the “negotiation” phase.

“I looked at my dorm and I got really, really depressed because it was like, ‘There’s nothing in here. I have to stay in this room for a month-and-a-half,’” Bond said. “That was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t like that idea. But then after I started unpacking, setting all my stuff up, it started to feel more like home. Throughout my time there, I started to call Xiamen my home.”

Both DeLost and Bond described their hosts as hospitable, adding some individuals seemed to go out of their way to make the group feel more welcome.

“Gift-giving is a big thing. On my birthday, I didn’t expect anything. Go out with friends, hang out, have a good day. They brought me all these gifts that they made, and it was the nicest, kindest thing,” Bond said, describing one gift that one student went to great lengths to make. “It was a photo of all of us, but I know that he had to go into the city to get that printed. That’s like a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride. That’s almost half a day’s trip to go in there, get that and come back.”

At the same time, cultural sensitivity isn’t as prevalent in China as it is in America.

“In Xiamen specifically … they don’t see a lot of cultures there. It’s pretty much just Chinese. That’s it that they see,” Bond said. “But when I went to Shenzhen … I experienced an entirely different culture. It’s very similar to Xiamen, but everyone was welcoming. They introduced me as ‘Mr. Bond’ instead of ‘Noah.’ Super hospitable everywhere I went.”

Some students, for example, would skip classes — virtually unheard of in Chinese education — to accompany the visiting American group. Hosts would pay for the students’ needs with their own money, and were eager to practice their English with the ICC students.

“They would go out of their way for us, especially for Americans. The big thing was, since you were an American, everyone to take a photo of you,” DeLost said. “You were kind of like a celebrity over there. Coming back here, one of the culture shocks I had was, ‘Oh, I’m not a minority anymore.’”

As the group took in another culture across the globe, students made a point to remain close with one another. After all, they were each other’s family away from home.

“We were friends before the trip, but I think we became closer friends during the trip as well, because there were turning points where we needed each other,” DeLost said. “We’d get frustrated about something and we’d just need someone to talk to. There was only a group of people that we actually trusted.”

One of the activities they took part in together was a “family night,” an effort to find the most American meal they could and try to cook it.

When Burton asked what they decided on, DeLost laughed and responded: “Stir fry.”

After the trip, both Bond and DeLost said the trip had enriched each student’s worldview.

Bond, for example, learned to approach foreign-born students, knowing the timidness that comes when living in a new country, and getting to know those students better.

“Just going up to them and talking to them, telling them, ‘Hey, you can come in here anytime you want. If you have any questions, let us know,’” Bond said. “Just being very nice to them, very welcoming as (other cultures) are to us, and noticing the different things they celebrate that we don’t.”

For DeLost, the trip served as an eye-opening look at how Americans may take certain amenities for granted.

“It really opened up my eyes about how much Americans take stuff for granted, such as their education, such as stuff that they have,” she said. “... I think we also kind of take cultures for granted sometimes as well in America. We don’t go out of our way, necessarily, to greet students from another country.”

That, and the presence of ICC’s International Center, now prompts both Bond and DeLost to reach out to fellow American students in order to share their experiences.

“What surprises me about that center is it’s so open. There’s this big glass window that sits in the middle. I see, day after day, students who look and they keep walking by,” Bond said. “They look in like they’re interested, but they walk on by. That’s something I really want to try and fix.”

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