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From School Walls to Great Wall

From School Walls to the Great Wall

By Brent Wilhite

The grandeur of towering mountains combined with epic landscapes set the scene for the fall of dynasties, the rise of emperors, and a visit from a handful of Westminster students.

Armed guards at the airports scrutinizing every traveler, erratic and dangerous driving conditions, masses of tourists everywhere you look--Salt Lake City during the Olympics? No, it's a typical scene in downtown Shanghai, China.

Assistant Professor of Management Steve Hurlbut and six Westminster students joined students and faculty from Brigham Young University, Utah Valley State College, Snow College, and other institutions across Utah. As you can imagine, conveying a group of 28 Americans and four professors across Communist China is no small task. Thanks to a skilled guide, the group visited some of the most mystical and magical places on Earth. While those sites left a lasting impression on the students, the friendships kindled with the Chinese people were among the many treasures brought back to Utah.

Camera shutters clicked everywhere the group went, but the Americans weren't the only ones taking the photographs. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired Amie Christensen ('02) had her picture taken with more than a few Chinese. "Being the only blonde around, everywhere I went, people wanted a picture with me."

Wherever the group traveled, everyone seemed excited to meet "the Americans." In the "small town" of Deyang (population 150,000), the students were billed as the second group of Westerners to ever visit the town. "From the moment we stepped off the train, there were video cameras on us," said Jared Erwin ('01). "The people were really excited just to meet Americans and get the feeling that we were friendly."

Smiling faces and helping hands greeted the group at every stop of their tour. "Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty, eating the finest foods that only the rich enjoyed," Christensen said.

The menu consisted of some very interesting foods that would make many people squirm or lose their appetite altogether. The uneasiness wasn't caused by the rice, dumplings, and chicken soup, but it was the floating chicken head in the soup, or the pig ears, head, and chicken feet that left many wondering if they had the stomach to be treated like royalty.

The students spent two weeks at the Shanghai Teacher's College, where, every morning, they studied the Chinese language. "I picked up the language a little bit," Christensen said. " It's a tonal language, so it's kind of hard for Americans to speak, because one word could mean five different things depending on the tone of the word."

The American students weren't the only ones struggling with the language barrier. "All the Chinese students wanted to practice their English," said Dr. Hurlbut. "Almost every place we visited, the students were broken into small groups, and they would visit English classes."

The one-on-one interaction seemed to be an eye-opener for the students from both countries. "They would speak English to us, and we'd stammer out some Chinese," said Erwin. "They were shocked that we were learning Chinese. The students couldn't understand why the Americans would want to learn their language. They thought English was the only language you needed to learn, and if you knew that--you were set."

The dialogues between the students typically centered on the simple freedoms Americans enjoyed. "They wanted to hear all about what it was like to have brothers and sisters," said Erwin.

In 1979, the Chinese government introduced a "one-child" policy to control the population. "They seemed pretty jealous, and they really wanted bigger families," said Erwin. Traditionally, the family is very important to China. Parents bemoaned not being able to provide large families for their children, as a result of the restriction.

The American students learned how very different college life in Utah is from college life in China. "They were amazed that we could travel out of the country," Christensen said. "They weren't even allowed to go outside of their dormitories after " Westminster's students experienced that control first-hand, as in one city they were also locked in their dorms at

The Chinese were very eager to learn all they could about the Americans. At two of the schools the group visited, Dr. Hurlbut offered his expertise to the faculty in the Chinese business schools. "I explained to them that if they were interested, I would be happy to give a presentation about experiential learning in America," Dr. Hurlbut said.

Within days of hearing of this opportunity, the university made accommodations for its entire business school faculty to attend the presentation. "It was really interesting for me. It was a chance for me to tell them something about American business education and for me to hear from them about the state of their business education."

But the group of students didn't travel halfway around the world just to visit other colleges. This was China--there were places to go and things to see. The five-week trip allowed the group to visit several stunning and dramatic sites, including the Great Wall of China, the Potala Palace,

Tianenman Square
, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Terra-Cotta Warriors in Xi'an.

Each of the sites the group visited seemed to mesmerize them with a mystical tale of its past, leaving visitors more curious than when they first stepped on what felt like hallowed ground. "Tibet was probably my favorite region," said Dr. Hurlbut. "I'm not a spiritual person at all, but the interaction of religion, history, politics and culture was fascinating to me. Of course, that was true everywhere we went."

The group met for a history class while standing on a secluded, run-down section of the Great Wall of China. Their guide taught them how the first blocks of the 4,500-mile-long Great Wall were laid in 221 B.C. to protect an ancient Chinese empire from marauding tribes to the North.

As you can imagine, taking a Chinese history class while standing on the Great Wall of China is very different from reading about it in a book. "It had a whole lot more impact on me than if I were taking some class here," said Erwin. "I don't know if I would have been that interested."

The Great Wall was built on the highest points along the mountains, which offered the students miles of majestic views of mountain vistas.

"The Great Wall was amazing," said Erwin. "We were out in the middle of the mountains by a very small village and didn't run into a single other person while we were there. As we walked along the wall, I just thought how incredible it was that we could walk for miles along this structure that was built thousands of years ago."

Not only were the sites compelling, but there was a certain magnetism between the students and the Chinese people they met. "Up on the mountain, there were a lot of little kids waiting for us," continued Erwin. "I pulled out a piece of paper and gave it to one of the kids. He looked at it like it was the coolest thing in the world. It was like he had never seen paper before."

The friendly and open attitude of the Chinese followed the group everywhere they went. "The Chinese people are so much friendlier than people are here," said Christensen.

The Chinese people made a lasting impression on the Westminster group. "It was really kind of heartbreaking to see little kids with almost no clothing," Erwin said. "They were dirty, sick, scrawny little kids with not much to eat."

The trip to China allowed Westminster to expand its classrooms beyond the school walls and onto the Great Wall. But more important than the sites they visited were the friendship and camaraderie uniting Utah students with the Chinese people halfway around the world. You can't gain that from reading a textbook.