Whitman in China program traces roots to community

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As Whitman celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Whitman in China program this year, we look back in time to its founding. Walla Wallans inspired this educational exchange program that has created deep and lasting friendships between the people of China, Whitman College and local residents.

In 1980 a group of Walla Walla wheat farmers led by David Deal, then professor of history at Whitman, traveled to China to learn more about that nation’s agricultural practices. China had just opened up to the West as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s call for modernization and an Open Door policy.

During what is known in program lore as the “China Farm Tour,” this group of Walla Walla citizens observed that people in China were hungry for knowledge about the outside world and in great need of native speakers of English. Motivated by the potential for mutual gain, and with support from the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, the Whitman in China program was established in 1982 and became one of the first programs to send U.S. college graduates to China after it opened up.

In the ensuing 30 years, 167 Whitman alumni have taught English for one year or more at one of three Chinese partner universities, and 60 Chinese faculty from those universities have come to Walla Walla for one year to study at Whitman and learn about U.S. society.

Last September 32 past participants gathered on the Whitman campus for the 30th anniversary celebration. The reunion revealed the depth of the impact this program has had on its participants.

Teaching in China and learning Mandarin Chinese has launched the careers of many of the program’s alumni, such as Peter Wonacott ’89, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal posted in Asia and Africa; and Matt Van Osdol ’04, former consultant at the U.S.-China Business Council in Beijing.

Some past participants have settled in the Walla Walla Valley: among them are anthropology professor Chas McKhann and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tony Cabasco.

Six years ago professor Zhao Wencui, who came to Whitman via the program, established a Chinese language program in Walla Walla for children, giving local kids (18 currently) an early start in Mandarin language acquisition.

Local families have served as Friendship Families to many of the Chinese visiting scholars, impacting their understanding of China.

Sue Gillespie, a Friendship Family host to eight Chinese scholars and students, noted her family feels very fortunate to have been part of this program. Of the Chinese visitors she reflects, “We continue to be impressed by their graciousness, wisdom, flexibility and friendliness.”

Teachers from China, such as professor Zhou Zhen, retired dean of foreign languages at Yunnan University, noted the two years she spent in Walla Walla completely changed her professional life. She returned to China with a depth of knowledge about the U.S. and authentic English language usage that gave her intercultural understanding and credibility as a teacher.

Because these American and Chinese teachers have each taught hundreds of students, one could argue this program has impacted the understanding of thousands of Chinese students about the U.S., and at the same time connected hundreds friends and relatives of the American teachers to contemporary China.

The 30th anniversary coincides with the once-per-decade change in leadership in China and President Obama’s re-election — an opportune moment to reflect upon the founding of this special program and the positive impact such initiatives can have on U.S.-China relations.

Given the close economic ties yet tense political relations between the U.S. and China and the need for our nations to collaborate in critical areas like global warming, it is reassuring to know that one idea sparked by a few sojourners from a small town in Eastern Washington produced such a broad impact on U.S.-China understanding at the grassroots level.

Susan Holme Brick is Whitman’s director of Off-Campus Studies. She lived and worked in China and Taiwan in the 1980s and has arranged study abroad for college students for more than 20 years.

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