The China Study Abroad program enlightens visitors

The China Study Abroad program has exposed Gallaudet students, faculty, and staff to the natural beauty, the culture, and language of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Given them insights on the lives and the education of the country’s 100 million deaf and hard of hearing people. It has also had an enormous impact on deaf Chinese people, broadening their avenues to education and showing them opportunities that they never imagined possible.

Over the years the program has made a lasting impact on its participants. The academic enrichment component of the study abroad experience that has come from helping to improve educational opportunities for deaf Chinese students, and interacting with China’s deaf community in general, has reshaped many of the participants’ lives, influencing many to make a decision on an academic major to pursue, and for others, it was the deciding factor in choosing a career. Many students have made the choice to enter international fields of study to improve the lives of deaf people, start a non-profit organization, or become teachers, based on the inspiration they received from the program.

The early years

China Study Abroad was initiated in 1997 by Dr. Richard Lytle, a professor in the Department of Education who currently serves as special assistant to the president, with the encouragement of Dr. David Martin, dean emeritus, who has a long-standing commitment to improving education for deaf Chinese students that continues to this day. Lytle obtained a Fulbright grant to start the study abroad program that year, and in 1998 he led the new program’s first group to China.

One seminal experience took place during the first study abroad trip, said Lytle, recalling a dinner with three hearing teachers from a school for deaf students in Beijing. Eyeing their American visitors — a mix of bright young, deaf students and deaf professional staff and faculty — one of the hearing principals shook his head skeptically and proclaimed, “Chinese deaf are different,” an went on to explain that deaf people from his country were not capable of such accomplishments. Determined to convince him that his perception of deaf Chinese people was wrong, Lytle did some research when the group returned to Gallaudet and discovered 25 deaf Chinese people in the campus community. This began a long-term friendship and partnership to which Lytle credits his knowledge and understanding of China and the deaf community. The following year, 13 deaf Chinese people from Gallaudet were members of the study abroad group. This time, a dinner was held with the same three educators and “their response changed from ‘Chinese can’t do it’ to ‘How did they do it?'” said Lytle.

A catalyst for change

Over the ensuing years, the study abroad China visitors — Gallaudet’s longest-running international study program–have proven time and again to Chinese educators, government officials, and others who may doubt the potential of deaf people that not being able to hear isn’t a barrier to success, providing that proper education and training are available. In the process, “We have helped change the mentality of deaf Chinese from a paradigm of hopelessness to feeling better about themselves, and knowing that they are capable of doing more than just factory work,” said Lytle. In a Communist controlled country, this is no small feat. There are no independent organizations for deaf people to unite and become empowered, since all groups are under government leadership.

In addition to the study abroad program, Lytle has undertaken other means to partner with deaf Chinese people to reach their full potential. He helped found the non-profit organization Partners in Education (PIE) in 1999 to advance the rights, education, and empowerment of the deaf Chinese community.

Two years ago, Lytle created four public service announcements, distributed in China through the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to send a message of hope to deaf Chinese people that no dream or ambition is too great for them to achieve.

But perhaps one of the greatest achievements of PIE is its efforts to help a deaf person, the late He Shenghua, establish the Concordia School for the Deaf in the city of Jiujiang. Concordia, which translates in English to “love and peace,” was established in a former factory to educate the deaf children of farm workers who otherwise would not have an opportunity to go to school. In a country where deaf schools employ only hearing teachers for academic classes, the unique aspect of this school is that it was founded by a deaf man, and its teachers are deaf. The school is very poor, but what it lacks in resources, it makes up for in hard work and a zest for learning.

“Studies show that the Concordia students are learning more than the hearing students at another local school,” Lytle said with pride. He added that some of the first graduates of the school have been admitted to colleges in China.

Summer 2009

Students who take part in the China Study Abroad program are responsible for paying their own way. No Gallaudet public funding is involved. Some of the participants receive scholarships, many from the Newcombe Foundation, to defray expenses.

Generally, 15 to 35 people participate in each trip. This summer’s program, which was supported by Gallaudet’s Center for International Programs and Services, attracted 14 students, who were led by William Ennis, an instructor in the History Department, and Cai Hui, visual communication and customer service coordinator in the Department of Public Safety.

Additional support came from Zhou Fang, design manager for Enrollment Marketing, who has worked with the China Study Abroad program from its beginning. Lytle said that this year’s group was particularly diverse, with participants hailing from Jamaica, Nigeria, China, India, and the United States.

From June 11 to 30, the group’s whirlwind itinerary took it to six cities, where they visited world renowned sites — Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Terra Cota Warriors, for example; hiked among breath taking scenery in the world famous Lushan and Huashan mountains, learned about deaf education in China, and interacted with China’s deaf community.

As they do every year, the study abroad students visited the Jiujiang school and brought a fresh supply of teaching materials. This year, for the first time, the group members, aided by the local deaf community and students at the school, worked at the school painting, installing a basketball court, and making much needed repairs to the building. The Study Abroad group also taught ASL and English to the students at the school and in turn received lessons in Chinese sign language from the teachers and children.

The students and leaders in the program were so inspired by their efforts at the Jiujiang school that they wanted to do even more to improve it. After returning to their hotel one day after putting in long hours of work, the students decided to take up a collection among themselves and raised enough money to go out and buy two printers for the school.

An enduring relationship

Vignettes such as this illustrate the strong bond that has been forged between China’s deaf community and the study abroad participants. “Our students feel like heroes over there,” said Lytle, describing the warm welcome that the study abroad participants consistently receive from the deaf community. The reason for the positive relationship is that the program has cultivated a long tradition of excellence, which will help ensure that study abroad trips will continue for many years to come.

Strong community support at Gallaudet and in China among deaf Chinese is further evidence of the program’s durability. This year, Lytle and Hui went to China separately, using vacation time and at their own expense, to set up support for the 2009 program. Lytle said the program has made such as “enormous impact” on Chinese deaf people and educators that it has had a unifying effect on the fragmented Chinese deaf community, serving to bring them together and collaborate for the first time. Over the years, it has also cultivated friendships with China’s government, the Shaanxi Education Commission, and with Sun Jianning, secretary general of the Shaanxi Education Association for International Exchange.

In fact, Lytle said that many Chinese students have enrolled at Gallaudet as a result of their exposure to students and leaders in the Study Abroad program. Two of these students have gone on to earn Ph.D.s — Yang Jun Hui, who is a researcher in England, earned her Ph.D. at Gallaudet, and Li Ying earned her master’s degree at Gallaudet and her Ph.D. from Northeastern University. A third student who is pursuing her Ph.D., Zhou Ting Ting, earned her master’s degree at Gallaudet.

“The fact that everyone benefits from the China Study Abroad program points to its symbiotic philosophy,” said Lytle. “We feed their energy and empower them in ways that in turn inspire our students.”

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