MOUNT OLIVE — For many, traveling internationally is a vacation – a break from the responsibilities of a busy career. For University of Mount Olive (UMO) alumna Aisha Atkinson of Goldsboro, her international travel became quite the opposite when she was asked to take a job teaching the fundamentals of English to a group of Chinese students in China.
Atkinson earned her bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education from UMO in 2013. She also received the prestigious Lorelle F. Martin Award for Academic Excellence, given to the student with the highest academic average. After college Atkinson taught in North Carolina for two years before taking a position as an English teacher at George Ranch High School (GRHS), a 6A public school in Rosenberg, Texas. When she accepted the job, she had no idea what adventures the future would hold.
Since 2010, GRHS has been in partnership with Foshan Middle School #3 in Foshan, China, an urban city with a population of about seven million people. This partnership includes an exchange of administrators, teachers, and students from GRHS to Foshan, and from Foshan to GRHS.
“The idea behind the exchange is for American and Chinese participants to develop an increased understanding of their host country’s culture, language, and education system, so when they return, they are able to bring back with them new ideas,” Atkinson said.
During the exchange, the teachers from GRHS stay in Foshan for a month, teaching and observing classes. Atkinson was aware of the exchange program, but never dreamed of being given the opportunity to go. When the GRHS assistant principal called Atkinson’s classroom in March, she wasn’t prepared to be asked, “How would you like to go to China?”
“My heart skipped a beat…I wasn’t expecting to be offered such an amazing opportunity,” she said. After some initial doubts, Atkinson was encouraged by her fiancé, Aaron, who she calls “the love of her life,” to enjoy the adventure. So, Atkinson started her journey to Foshan.
During her time in China from April 24 to May 21, Atkinson experienced the differences between American and Chinese education systems. She taught English classes that were the equivalent of an American 9th grade class. The classes varied from 40 to 50 students and took place from 7:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. each day. During this time, she was able to see how incredibly different students are in China from those she taught in America.
“Education is a major priority in the life of Chinese high school students,” she noted. “In fact, their daily routine are so regimented, that they barely have any time to socialize with their peers.”
Approximately 98% of Atkinson’s students lived on campus during the week, with their day starting at 6 a.m. with breakfast and reading assignments in both Chinese and English. They continued their day with classes, dorm chores, and private tutoring session to prepare for college entrance exams. An average day for a Chinese high school student could end around 10 p.m.
The experience included its share of challenges, with the most obvious being the language barrier. “One of my host students, Tina, helped me to download an app that accurately translates English and Chinese words, pronounces them for the user, and will even translate photos, signs, and menus. Needless to say, this app saved my life a number of times,” she said.
Atkinson also faced a challenge that many might never consider – a lack of internet availability. “The internet is largely censored in China. Technological essentials such as Google, Google Maps, email servers, YouTube, Facebook, and the like are all blocked from access,” she said. This not only made communication with her friends and love ones very difficult, but it also restricted her methods of instruction.
Being an African American in China, Atkinson discovered that she was quite the novelty. “Everywhere I went, people stared at me, took pictures of me, and touched my hair. I was literally photographed by thousands of people,” she said.
Despite the challenges of language barriers and internet restrictions, Atkinson found her experience in China to be life changing. “It really provided me with a much needed period of clarity and self-reflection,” she said. “I realized while traversing the country, stepping beyond my comfort zone is what will ultimately inspire my growth not only professionally, but personally as well.”