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Sister school offers cultural exchange for teachers and students

Beth Gulley, professor of English at Johnson County Community College, spent an entire academic year at JCCC's sister school in north-central China, Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU).

The idea began to germinate when Gulley met students from NWPU in a JCCC colleague's online Composition II class.

"I thought it would neat to meet these students in person," she said. 

After a preliminary two-week visit to NWPU, where she was asked to co-teach English classes, she decided to take the leap into teaching abroad.

Her husband, also a college English instructor, taught at NWPU, too. He now works at Neosho County Community College in Ottawa. Their son, then 15, enrolled in online high school through their Paola school district.

Here are some highlights from her visit: 

  1. Without knowing the language, navigate a large city.

NWPU has two campuses. Gulley's apartment was on the original campus in downtown Xi'an, China, but the classes she taught were offered on the "new" campus in the Chinese equivalent of the suburbs.

So, each morning Gulley would ride the bus for an hour to the new campus, teach her classes and ride the hour back home. Just like Lawrence to Overland Park, right? One difference: Gulley couldn't speak the language.

While in China, Gulley took a Chinese-language class, but she was far from fluent, even at the end of her visit.

"I could order at a restaurant," she said. "That was about it."

  1. Teach – again without knowing the language.

Gulley said teaching was great, but she missed joining in on the students' banter at the beginning and end of class. Her classes were taught in English, but the students bookended the time in Chinese. 

"Here, if the students come into the classroom talking about how they didn't understand the homework, I know to pay special attention to that, and to help them work through the issues involved," she said.

  1. Embrace the cultural and academic differences.

Gulley taught English writing, public speaking and pronunciation. Unlike at JCCC, where students can be of different ages from diverse backgrounds, the students in NWPU's English classes were "mostly girls and mostly the same age," Gulley said. She also realized that classes were taught by cohort, where the same people are together for every class.

"I realized when I presented my introductory exercise, the one I use at the beginning of the class, it was really just for my benefit because they already knew each other," she said, smiling.

  1. Build memories.

One highlight of the year included her presentation to faculty on using cellphones as teaching tools. "They have problems with cellphones being a classroom distraction, too," she said. "I attempted to show how the phones could be beneficial."

Another highlight was a side trip to Thailand during semester break. After the break, Gulley participated in a protest for women's rights. In the patriarchal Chinese society, women on the subway are routinely groped, Gulley said. Authorities denied space to a protester who wanted to run a billboard calling out that behavior.

Gulley and fellow protesters walked through subway stations carrying a copy of the billboard.

"I was really quite proud of that," she said.

Students: Follow her lead

The Office of International Education selects up to 20 students a semester for scholarships to NWPU. The scholarship to study abroad includes registration, tuition, housing and a monthly allowance. Applications are accepted for both fall and spring semesters. For more information, contact the office at 913-469-8500, ext. 3470.