OV, Chinese visitors celebrate partnership

BRANDON — Otter Valley Union High School recently held a ceremony in the library to celebrate the partnership between the Vermont International Academy and China. John Holden, C.E.O. and founder of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, as well as “Cathy” Qian Kexin, age 18, of Guangzhou, China, were the special guests.
One of the goals of the program is to break down the cultural misconceptions each have about the other. Qian Wei, a teacher from the Hanban Institute who has been teaching at OVUHS since classes started this September, shared some humorous stories — and culture shock — he has had since his arrival. 
Before he had arrived in Vermont Qian Wei had been given many precautions. 
“I had heard you can’t go out after 8 at night because you might get robbed,” Wei laughed with the crowd of about 25 school, students and community members at the Nov. 7 ceremony. “Which obviously isn’t true.”
Wei (pictured, left) then learned that not every American household has guns, contrary to the news stories that portray the United States as a gun-happy country, and those who do most often use them for hunting game — a relatively foreign concept to most Chinese. 
He also reflected on the difference in status among schools, teachers and administrations. In China, he said, teachers are very much revered and principals are held in the highest of esteem. That’s why he was so surprised to hear that Principal Jim Avery would be meeting him at the airport in person to escort him to the school.
“I was shocked to learn this,” Wei said. “I had written to Mr. Avery to learn which bus or train I must take from Burlington to get to Otter Valley, and he tells me not to worry, that he would pick me up himself! That would never happen in China,” Wei said. “The principal would send someone else to do such a task.” 
Wei went on to recall that he had felt so bad when his flight was delayed several times, causing a several-hour wait, but Avery reassured him by telling him he read books and met a friend and all was well.
“All to make me feel better,” Wei said, still somewhat surprised by the generosity of the people he has met since his arrival.
Another surprise for Wei has been that he actually has free time to work on things he enjoys, like calligraphy. Wei said that in China teachers are always expected to be available to talk to parents about their students and they work long hours in a culture that has long prized the value of education.
After Wei’s comments, a handful of students in the Mandarin Chinese Language program showed off their skills by introducing themselves and listing members of their families in Mandarin. 
OVUHS and VIA began working together to promote educational exchanges with China in 2017, though the school has been working with other China groups for about 15 years. The goal with VIA is to allow students from China to come to Vermont and for Vermont students to travel to VIA schools in China — perhaps for as long as a semester or a year. 
“Otter Valley has always embraced and believed in the power of international and global connections,” Avery said.
Avery hopes to have OV students travel to China to study soon, even if it is only for a few weeks in the summer program, but working up to longer stays. He thinks that VIA provides Otter Valley with the best opportunity to make that happen.
“We have been talking about having students travel to China for a summer program,” Avery said. “Free of charge,” noting that scholarship programs financed by both sides would help fund the exchanges.
Vermont International Academy is an international, multi-campus, college preparatory school founded in 2011 that now has 600 students in campuses across six locations throughout China. VIA works to make sure that international students are prepared to meet the challenges of higher education in American — whether that is in high school or college. 
CHINESE STUDENT “CATHY” Qian Kexin, 18, of Guangzhou, China, says her experience at OV is the most exciting of her life. 
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
Jim Cross, president of VIA, said that as they get more students enrolled at VIA they will have more candidates to bring to Otter Valley.
“It takes a special kind of student to be able to do this,” Cross said.
Cathy is the first student from China to come to study in Vermont, but Avery hopes that number will go up to three or even five students in coming semesters. To illustrate how big an industry international education is, Cross said that statewide international college students currently contribute $40 million to the Vermont economy.
“My experience at OV is the most exciting experience I have ever had,” Cathy said. “I appreciate all the students and teachers for taking care of me.”
Gavin Fuller, Cathy’s host parent, said the experience has been wonderful for his family as well. While Cathy still hasn’t adjusted fully to American food, Fuller and his family have been learning how to cook Chinese foods. The Li family, who own Li’s Chinese Restaurant in Brandon, have been especially helpful by sharing recipes and even herbs and vegetables they grow in their garden that are hard to find in the area. And while Fuller’s two daughters have been tremendously helpful getting Cathy settled into school, Fuller said he was impressed with her bravery in leaving behind her family and traveling halfway around the world to be on her own in a strange country. 
“She’s just so smart,” Fuller said. “It’s impressive what she’s done.”
Otter Valley has been involved with programs with China since 2003, most recently with the Hanban/Confucius Institute. This has allowed Otter Valley to offer a Mandarin Chinese language program for the past four years. Wei has taken over the teaching responsibilities this semester. Five students are currently enrolled in the program, but Avery would like to see that number rise in coming semesters. Avery says ideally they would have two classes of 20 students take advantage of Wei’s expertise for the two years he is at the school. 
Now, all the school needs is for a few more students to take the leap. “It’s a fantastic opportunity,” said John Holden, the president and CEO of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, an NGO dedicated to strengthening America’s capacity to understand China. Holden, who spoke to the crowd for about 10 minutes and encouraged the OV students in their journey learning Chinese, has been an associate dean at Peking University and is a veteran China expert serving on the National Committee on the U.S. China Relations from 1998-2005.
Encouraging the students in their quest to learn the Chinese language and to better understand China, Holden noted that the U.S. and China are “the two largest economies in the world, and we’re going to have to work together for a long time…. To be able to speak Chinese will be a very important skill to have, with a lot of job possibilities, for a long time to come.”

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