USC-Chinese exchange a cultural lesson

Published Feb 6, 2013 at 11:46 am (Updated Feb 6, 2013 at 11:46 am)

Upper St. Clair High School’s Assistant Principal Jace Palmer has been a busy man lately, preparing for the arrival of 22 students from China.

Chaperoned by two teachers, the group of 15 and 16 year-olds arrived in the United States on Jan. 28 for an east coast tour of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before arriving in Upper St. Clair on Feb. 2.

After meeting their host families and attending Super Bowl celebrations, the students started into three weeks of classes and activities at USC High School. Palmer doesn’t expect the language barrier to a problem, since all the Chinese students speak excellent English, a subject they usually begin at age 3.

What he expects will be different for the exchange students is how the American school day is structured. Palmer said that in China, students are on campus from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. with no sports or extracurricular activities in their schedule. While at USC, their academic day will run from 7:30 a.m.-2:20 p.m. After school, the Chinese students will have the opportunity to attend athletic and extracurricular activities. “They’ll be fascinated with those,” said Palmer.

Palmer thinks the students will be “overwhelmed” with the freedom and opportunity that American students have in their schools. Palmer, who has been to China twice, in April 2011 and June 2012, said that because of the size of China’s population, not every student who wants to attend college is able.

He explained that in China, one’s future is based on two tests: one taken at the end of seventh grade, and one at the end of 12th grade. A student’s performance determines if they will be a blue collar worker or if they will go on to study at a university.

“It will be a foreign concept to them that any American student who wants to go to college can go,” said Palmer.

Since most of the Chinese students visiting USC dream of attending college in the United States, Palmer said they will be thrilled to be able to attend the National College Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center while they are here.

Palmer said most of the families hosting the Chinese have more than one child, so another interesting experience for the students will be the opportunity to interact with siblings, as well as learning how American households live. Host families are encouraged to spend some time introducing their Chinese students to the local culture by showing them around Pittsburgh and the attractions the region has to offer.

Coming from Beijing, the world’s largest city, Palmer said the students will most likely view Pittsburgh as a small town. “The population there is mind boggling,” he said. “Beijing is about six times larger than New York City, and there are about 20 cities in China bigger than New York and Los Angeles.”

Because of China’s population, Palmer said almost everyone lives in apartments. He said that no matter what the size of a host family’s home, the students are going to think they are living in a mansion. “I think they’ll be impressed with America as a land of opportunity,” said Palmer.

Having the Chinese students come to USC is gratifying to Palmer, who had a goal of making an exchange program a reality. In October 2010, a Chinese principal visited the district, and Palmer said his two trips to China helped forge relationships with the Chinese. He said the Chinese did a lot of research and knew of the school district’s reputation before permitting the exchange, which Palmer believes is a first in western Pennsylvania.

While the Upper St. Clair community has participated in exchange programs with students from Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Thailand, Palmer said arranging for visitors from China has posed unique challenges. Palmer said it was very difficult for the Chinese students to receive visas to study in the U.S., but he worked with the Chinese government and educational system, as well as a travel liaison in Philadelphia, to arrange most of the details.

For Palmer, the culmination of his goal for a Chinese exchange program would be to arrange a trip for Upper St. Clair students to visit China. He is hoping that if there is enough student interest, he will be able to make that goal a reality this June.

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