The China Advocacy Institute in Words and Pictures

Story by Catherine Jarmin Miller '99
Photos by Frank Miller

“Do American students party like they do in ‘High School Musical’?” It was an honest question.

Spring (Wei) Chunni wondered this as we walked the enormous, concrete-scaped grounds of Xi’an’s Famen Temple. Chunni is one of 40 Chinese students participating in the Advocacy Institute, an interdisciplinary Willamette post-session taught abroad and funded by a grant — the largest programming grant in Willamette’s history — to facilitate citizenship and cultural understanding.

British Parliamentary Debate and sustainability are complementary themes of the institute, now situated at Xi’an Jiaotong University. It was my pleasure, as a WU alumna, to see firsthand how it worked.

“No,” I replied to Chunni. With her basic knowledge of English and my non-existent Mandarin, I tried to explain that there are all kinds of students, including partiers. “I was very serious,” I replied, hoping that my infamous award for Most Studious would resonate. I also attempted, not too successfully, to explain why it took me seven years to complete my college education and how, when I finally transferred to Willamette, I blossomed.

For this year’s program, environmental studies professors Joe Bowersox and Scott Pike guided American and Chinese students through complex discussions about environmental and cultural sustainability. Participants learned the rules and intricacies of debate, courtesy of Dean of Campus Life David Douglass, professor Una Kimokeo-Goes ’03, “The Intern” Bill Newell ’13, and Ting Ting Huang of the International Debate Education Association’s Beijing office. Along the way, every participant dealt with the challenges of communication, cultural difference and divergent approaches to complex questions. They argued in English for and against statements like, “The Chinese government should include the degradation or improvement of ecosystems in the calculation of its GDP.”

“We [Chinese students] seek a Western-style education,” says Judy (Ji) Tingting. She shared with me the fact that students in China often learn by memorization, with the ultimate goal of passing exams. The lifelong-learning skills of critical and analytical thinking are, to her, distinctly Western.

She, like most children in China, has taken a course in English and chosen an English name. In addition to Spring and Judy, other institute participants included Mango, Hathaway, Willma, Bella, Zoe, Zoy, Charlotte, Leslie, Lucy, Kevin, Arthur, Robert, Elaine, Emma, Hazel, Stephanie, Martina, and even Cinderella, who is now pursuing graduate studies in intercultural communication in Philadelphia.

They were quick to reach out to me, helping me avoid being run over by cars, holding umbrellas over my head to shield me from the sun, hailing cabs, and sharing refreshingly candid opinions about anything and everything — including their own government.

I was astonished, for example, to find that several had siblings in violation of the one-child policy — thanks to the happy surprise of twins or key government connections (or paying fines). Elsewhere I learned that they love American sitcoms. They are also fans of “Downton Abbey” and “House of Cards.” They are open, kind, generous, thoughtful, honest and generally happy.

In my first experience abroad, a Willamette post-session in Italy — as well as subsequent travels to India, Cambodia and beyond — I learned that familiarity is comfortable. In China, I found myself pleased by the many things I had in common with the students. I often start out my travels seeking the exotic and the new only to find myself noticing the similarities as well as the differences.

My Chinese friends reinforced this lesson, and the Advocacy Institute helped us understand ourselves and each other.

At the celebratory banquet concluding the visit, students wept, holding onto each other, saddened by the thought of parting. In challenging and accepting each other, they’ve bonded. I left feeling that perhaps they were, for the first time — and that I was, once again — blessed by the Willamette experience.

Learn more: willamette.edu/dept/advocacy_institute