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Gallaudet University and Beijing Union University (BUU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last year that includes plans for an exchange between faculty and students at the two universities, as well as a “3+2 degree transfer program,” where deaf students at BUU study for three years at their home university and two years at Gallaudet.

The Gallaudet-BUU International Center, the official title of the collaboration between the two universities, supports the 100,000 Strong Initiative, announced by President Obama in 2009, to increase the number of American students studying in China, as well as to prepare today’s students to help cultivate cultural, political, and economic bonds between the two countries. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who kicked-off the 100,000 Strong program in Beijing in May 2010, praised the arrangement between Gallaudet and BUU as a positive example of Obama’s intentions in creating the initiative.

Because the Chinese students need to become proficient in American Sign Language (ASL) and English before they can enroll in the transfer program, Gallaudet and BUU launched their partnership with a pilot summer instruction program in which 30 students from BUU were taught English and ASL for five weeks. The two teachers selected were two Gallaudet alumnae, Jiayi Zhou, who is originally from Shanghai, and Michelle Morris, who previously taught English to deaf students in China, as well as South Korea, and has experience working in Gallaudet’s International Relations Office. Prior to their arrival in China, Zhou and Morris spent one month at Gallaudet offering a free Chinese Sign Language workshop to the Gallaudet community. They gathered educational material and other invaluable resources from the English Language Institute at Gallaudet to prepare for the classes they would teach in China.

When they arrived in Beijing, Zhou and Morris were taken aback by the overwhelming reception they received from BUU. They were the treated to lavish hospitality, including dinners and meetings with the academic contingent at the university, as well as the parents of the students participating in the program. They were very thankful to BUU for its kindness, but they also knew that much was expected of them as teachers.
Their initial anxiety toward leading classes for five weeks was erased soon after meeting their students. At first the students were politely reserved, but after just a few days with teachers who communicated with them directly, they became relaxed–even exuberant. At first, Zhou acted as Morris’ translator, but the students picked up ASL so quickly that after two weeks they were fluent enough to communicate on their own; Zhou didn’t even need to continue coming to Morris’ four-hour English class.

Zhou and Morris developed a new-found respect for educators after experiencing the demands of the job: Their days were fun but exhausting, filled with lesson planning, meeting with students to discuss their learning progress, teaching four hours a day, grading homework, developing PowerPoint presentations, and much more.
They also found time to squeeze in a few cultural excursions so that the students could apply what they learned in a historical setting. Being able to see American Sign Language being utilized in classically Chinese settings epitomized the meaning of cultural exchange and was a great example of the American-Chinese relationship. Looking back, they were amazed that they survived five weeks of this hectic pace, and with little time to sleep. They did not, however, regret one moment of their experience.

The closing ceremony was a pleasant surprise. BUU provided specially designed T-shirts for all the students, and several BUU administrators attended to distribute the certificates. While the day was an occasion to celebrate, Zhou and Morris confessed to getting a bit teary by the touching remarks given by one of their exceptional students, Li Xiao. They wanted their last day to be happy and celebratory, and so it was. Morris said she hopes she will meet them again soon–in Washington, D.C. as Gallaudet students.

“The students in China are bright and enthusiastic. Many of them want to study at Gallaudet, and I cannot tell you how many times throughout the five weeks that I ended up talking about Gallaudet,” said Morris. “Many of them deserve to be in America studying because I know they can succeed.” She added that she was impressed by the Chinese deaf students’ zest for learning. “They are the most hard-working, driven, and focused students I have ever had the pleasure to meet; they come to class early and study late into the evening,” she said. “It was the most amazing experience and I would love to repeat it someday.”

Zhou believes that the pilot program between Gallaudet and BUU can help other Chinese deaf students achieve success like she, too, has experienced. “Like everyone, deaf people have dreams, but so many at first seem impossible. The first step is always the hardest, but after we take it, we realize that if we are persistent, there are no barriers that can prevent us from reaching our dreams,” she said. “Because of this belief, my dream of obtaining higher education at Gallaudet finally came true, and so can other deaf students in China and other countries.”

Gallaudet University thanks BUU, EducationUSA-Beijing, a unit of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and these two outstanding alumnae for a great start to a positive and productive partnership. This is a great step towards fulfilling the Gallaudet Strategic Plan goals of increasing the enrollment of international students and preparing or graduates for career success.

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