MOUNT OLIVE — Fourteen University of Mount Olive students recently spent nine days in China, learning the ropes of international travel and exploring the cities of Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. The students are all part of the Honors program at the University.
Each year, juniors in the Honors program take a course designed to teach them about world cultures and international travel. At the beginning of the year, the students choose a destination and they learn about its history and culture throughout the semester. At the end of the year, the students are given the opportunity to travel to the country they chose. The trip becomes a part of the academic curriculum and is budgeted to provide every student the financial opportunity to participate.
This year’s junior class, under the instruction of Assistant Honors Director Dr. Alan Lamm, chose China as their destination. “This year’s choice was China marking the first time a UMO group has visited that ancient and exciting nation,” Lamm said. Throughout the semester, students learned about the history and culture of China, as well as tips and tricks for the most efficient methods of international travel. At the end of the semester, the students along with Lamm, Honors Director Dr. Brenda Cates, and her husband Tim said “goodbye” to Mount Olive and “Ni Hao” to China.
During the nine-day adventure, the Honors group explored some of China’s most culturally and historically rich areas. Hannah Kirk, a rising senior from England found the entire experience life-changing. “I love travelling, and I am a big advocate for young people to see as much of the world as they can see, because you learn so much from travelling and experiencing different countries and their cultures that you simple cannot learn from doing anything other than fully immersing yourself…I think that is exactly what we did in China,” she said.
The first days of the trip were spent in Beijing, where students visited Tiananmen Square, toured the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, shopped at pearl and jade shops, admired pandas at the Beijing Zoo, and climbed the Great Wall, the longest man-made structure on earth. Many of the students found climbing the Great Wall to be one of the most rewarding experiences. “It was unbelievable. If you had told me last year that I would have climbed the Great Wall, I would have laughed in your face. The whole experience was unreal,” explained Kristin Power, a rising senior from Clayton. “The hike was very difficult, but it forced me to sit down and take in the world around me. I will never forget that feeling.”
The students’ second destination was Xian where they visited the Xingqing Park and performed fan dancing with locals. Their stop in Xian also included a tour of the Terracotta Army Museum where they saw thousands of the sculpted, life-size terracotta soldiers which protect the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
The final days of the trip were spent in Shanghai. During their stay in this city, students visited a silk carpet shop, toured the Yuyuan Garden which was built during the Ming Dynasty, admired the Jade Buddha Temple which remains one of Shanghai’s most famous and most active Buddhist temples, and spent leisure time vising Shanghai’s Disney World.
The Honors students found that out of all of the amazing sites they visited, some of the most extraordinary and unusual experiences were with the local Chinese people. “In every city and at every site visited, the Honors students had opportunities to interact with the local people, building bridges of mutual respect and friendship along the way,” Cates said. Just as the Chinese culture was new and strange to the American students, the presence of a group of Americans was strange to the native Chinese. The students found that it wasn’t uncommon for a local person to stop and want to take a picture of them because they were the first Americans they had ever seen. “We felt like celebrities! The Chinese call the Western people ‘big noses,” explained Kirk. On the Great Wall of China, she met a man from Malaysia and they shared a walk down the wall together. Several students also met some young Chinese children playing soccer in the street and joined in, an experience that was especially touching to Power. “It made my heart full,” she said.
Dr. Lamm agreed that the experiences they shared with the people around them were the most enriching. “Nothing in a classroom could prepare them for the wonderful people they met like our Chinese tour manager, Joan, or the 80-year-old tai chi master who gave them lessons in ancient martial arts, or the Chinese seniors they joined in with doing their morning exercises in a park, or the local kids they played a soccer game with. Those are the experiences that they will treasure for a lifetime,” he said.
Many of the students shared sentiments about the trip, using words like “humbling” and “unreal” to describe their experiences. Sarah McCollum, a recent graduate from Seven Spring truly expressed the power of the Honors program by stating that “I do not think I ever would have travelled to China if it weren’t for the UMO Honors program. I loved my time there.”
Dr. Cates echoed the words of the students and Dr. Lamm, expressing that the students had an amazing time enjoying a new culture, new food, and new people. “The Honors students were truly ambassadors for the University and the memories made on this trip will last a lifetime,” she said.