UCLA Student Volunteers Trek to China's Hinterland to Promote English-language Training

UCLA Student Volunteers Trek to China

Guanting, Qinghai province, China.

Eleven students spend three weeks in mountain villages of Qinghai helping local students and teachers prepare for grant writing development effort.

Leaving from Los Angeles August 1, eleven UCLA student volunteers and faculty spent a month in China, traveling by train and bus to remote minority nationality villages on the Qinghai-Gansu border in impoverished western China. There the students spent three weeks conducting intensive English conversation classes at the invitation of a unique local program struggling to gain enough mastery of English to use the Internet to write development grant proposals and bring project funds into their neglected area.

The trip was organized by Political Science Professor Richard Baum; Donna Brinton, instructor in the Department. of Applied Linguistics and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language); and Dr. Barbara Pillsbury, a medical anthropologist trained in TESL and specializing in the minority nationality religions and cultures of Northwest China. Richard Baum is director of the UCLA International Institute's Center for Chinese Studies.

The UCLA students took a 2-day orientation course in teaching conversational English set up by UCLA Prof. Russell Campbell, the director emeritus of the Language Resource Center.

Guanting and the Internet

The first stop of the delegation was Beijing, where the UCLA group had a day to see the city. Then they embarked on a 32 hour, 900 mile train trip to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. It was there, a year earlier, that Richard Baum had gone, in response to an ad in the H-Asia Internet discussion network calling for international volunteers to come to Qinghai for a month to teach English to minority nationality students in a remote mountain town. Intrigued, Baum flew to Xining in August 2001. There he met Dr. Kevin Stuart, a burly, bearded American expatriate. Stuart teaches English as a foreign language in the minority nationality section of the Qinghai Teachers College. After school he coaches his students to use the Internet to write development grants for their home towns and villages.

"Most remarkable of all," Richard Baum recalls, "was the use to which the English language instruction was being put. After classes ended each day, local students were being instructed in how to surf the Internet to locate -- and apply for -- development assistance grants to fund local poverty-alleviation projects in their native towns and villages. As of August 2001, more than 60 such local projects had been funded in this manner, ranging from the construction of village schoolrooms, greenhouses, and latrines, to the digging of water wells and the purchase of energy-saving solar cookers."

While Baum was there, Stuart provided him with a local guide and driver for a visit to Guanting township, located some six hours south of Xining, where that year's English training program was to take place. The classes were being organized by a local teacher, Zhu Yongzhong, through the Sanchuan (Three rivers) Development Association. Guanting is a small town of perhaps two thousand people with a single main street. It is located at the eastern end of Minhe County, an autonomous area for local minority nationalities: Tibetans; the Hui, a Muslim people who number some 8 million in China; the Tu, a Mongol group numbering 190,000; and the Salar, a people who migrated to China from Samarkand during the Yuan dynasty and number only 87,000. Both of the last two groups are clustered along the Qinghai-Gansu border. This is one of the poorest areas in China, with an annual income of only $100-200. Outside of Guanting many of the surrounding villages have neither toilets nor electricity nor running water. Last year's English classes in Guanting were taught by 4 foreign volunteers who ministered to students selected from more than a dozen nearby villages, the furthest out some two hours away by bus.

Before Baum returned to the United States he agreed to canvas his UCLA students for volunteers for an August 2002 intensive English training project in the mountain villages outside of Guanting. Back at UCLA he emailed some 100 graduate and undergraduate Political Science students. 34 said they were interested. In the end, 11 students made the trip. Three were graduate students; eight were undergraduates. Two were Chinese nationals who spoke good English. One other graduate student was fluent in Chinese. Three of the others had taken a little Chinese and could communicate some basic ideas. These language skills proved to be essential, as at their final destination none of their students-to-be spoke English.

Into the Mountains

Xining, just east of Qinghai Lake (Kokonor), with its 700,000 people, is the only large city in the province. From there the UCLA students left for a 6 hour bus trip southeast into the mountainous borderland with Gansu. The two provinces are divided by China's famous Yellow River, which can be seen from just outside Guanting township. In Guanting they were met by teacher Zhu Yongzhong. The project was headquartered at the town's Sanchuan Cultural Center.

Last year with only 4 foreign teachers, the local students came to Guanting to attend classes. This year, with 11 volunteer teachers, it was decided to send the teachers out to the villages. This was where some knowledge of Chinese was needed. The UCLA volunteers were sent out for the next three weeks to stay in 6 nearby villages. Three went to one village, 2 each to three villages, and two brave souls went alone to the remaining two villages.

Xin Zhang, one of the native Chinese among the UCLA volunteers, recalls:

"I taught in Xiela village, the poorest of the 6. The school had no electricity, no glass windows, no running water." Xin Zhang comes originally from Shanghai, but he had never seen the poverty-stricken Northwest before. "I was struck," he said, "by how optimistic and happy the people there were even though they were extremely poor. The students were really smart, but they had never had a chance to talk to someone who really spoke English before. They had learned English from textbooks, and even their local teachers really didn't speak English, so their pronunciation was very strange. But they were anxious to learn and they picked up the pronunciation very fast. They wanted to learn about the outside world also, and even about the rest of China, as they were pretty cut off."

While at Xiela village Xin Zhang lived in the school dorm and ate his meals at the local teacher's house. In one other village this was the arrangement, while in the other 4 villages the UCLA student teachers lived with the local teachers.

Guanting, Xin said, "is 3 hours by bus from the nearest city. Mainly they grow wheat, but they also raise sheep. The climate is poor for agriculture and the productivity of the land is low, so they only have one harvest a year, which took place while we were there. They invited us to a traditional harvest festival."

Xin Zhang was impressed with the dedication of the local village schoolteachers. "We made friends, especially with the local teachers. The teachers are paid for their jobs in the villages, but for the whole summer program sponsored by the Sanchuan Development Association they served as unpaid volunteers. They are very committed to their local communities and have been active in writing development proposals to international funding agencies, getting grants for education, improving the water supplies, and for building a greenhouse."

A Tearful Farewell

The UCLA volunteers remained in the villages for three weeks, returning to Guanting only occasionally, most notably at the end of the program for an award ceremony at the Sanchuan Cultural Center.

Many of their students came in to Guanting for the ceremony. As the UCLA group prepared to leave many of the local villagers who had taken their classes hugged them and broke into tears, clinging to their clothing to delay their departure. Xin Zhang said that the leave-taking was "the most emotional experience I ever had." Why was there was such an emotional reaction over people they had known such a short time? Richard Baum suggested, "These are very poor people. They live in the most backward part of China with little interaction with the outside world. They were moved that someone had taken an interest in them. It made an impact on their lives. It was a very emotional farewell. Some of our students stayed an extra day to draft development proposals, and a few plan to go back next year."

Xin Zhang added that some of the UCLA students not only plan to return to Guanting but are designing a more systematic syllabus, "now that they have a better idea what the level of preparedness is of the village students. We also want to add content as well as vocabulary. And some of us are working on plans for more development projects."

The trip to Guanting was partially funded by several donors: Howard and Norma Lee, Robert and Patsy Sung, and Richard Barnard, as well as a grant from the UC Pacific Rim Research Program. The students themselves still had to lay out about $1,000 each of their own money to make the trip.

Published: Thursday, September 12, 2002