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Looking back and glimpsing forward: How the BCPS China Cultural Exchange program has grown



When coordinator Deborah Wilson-Matusky talks about the BCPS China Cultural Exchange program, her passion is palpable.

“It’s a really unique program,” she said, her eyes glowing and voice lifting with excitement. “For a lot of these kids, it opens up doors that were unexpected or that didn’t seem reachable.”

Without pause, she goes on to name some of those doors: college admissions, Fulbright scholarships, international employment, and more.

But opening doors isn’t a new benefit of the program, Wilson-Matusky says. According to her, the program has been offering opportunities since its inception 10 years ago.

A New Approach

Though growing increasingly more popular today, exchange programs – particularly those with China – were few and far in between before 2006. In fact, as Kelly Smith, a co-founder of the China Cultural Exchange program and the current coordinator of the BCPS Office of Secondary English Language Arts, explains, the programs that were available allowed participants either to live abroad or to host students, not both.

“We found very few programs in existence, and none of the programs offered a reciprocal experience,” Smith said about a survey that she helped conduct of exchange programs in the United States before 2006. “We wanted to create a program that involved both a hosting and a guest experience.”

The lack of two-way exchange opportunities wasn’t the only motivation for BCPS to create its own program, though. Wilson-Matusky adds that inspiration for the program also came from David Alexander and Jian Wang, professors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of Kentucky, respectively. As avid travelers, Alexander and Wang often visited Beijing, China, and shared stories from their trips with former BCPS Superintendent Dr. Joe A. Hairston. Their stories, combined with Hairston’s experiences living abroad as a child, led the superintendent to look for ways to open travel opportunities not only to BCPS students but others, as well.

Spotlight Lauren Javins from Dulaney Signs a Picture.  Lauren studied Chinese as an undergraduate student at Gettysburg and then studied Chinese as part of a masters program at Beijing University.  Lauren is still working in China and studying!

SpotlightDulaney and Tie Yi students pose for a picture

SpotlightDulaney and Tie Yi students pose for a picture

SpotlightPrincipal Lyle Patzkowsky signs the shirt of a student from Tie Yi

“Dr. Hairston had traveled around the world with his parents,” Wilson-Matusky said. “He wanted to arrange something like that for BCPS.”

That something, Smith adds, turned out to be an exchange program.

She said: “We wanted to partner our BCPS students with a student in China for a 16-week experience. Our intent was that the Chinese student would come to their American host family for eight weeks and then our student would return to China with their student to live in China for another eight weeks.... The program would be a true blend of individuals, families, schools, and communities.”

To achieve that blend, Smith traveled to China in July 2006 alongside Alexander; Wang; and Lyle Patzkowsky, former principal of Dulaney High School. Searching for a partner school, the group visited more than 15 possibilities throughout Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an.

About the group’s trip to Xi’an, Smith said: “Finally, we visited Xi’an, a city in central China.... Something about the city felt familiar: the tree-lined streets, the gently-sloping landscape. The city felt welcoming; it felt a little like Baltimore, a little like Annapolis. In some ways, the city had the same college-town feel.”

In addition to its scenery, however, Smith says that something else about the city also felt familiar: its people, particularly those who worked at or attended Tie Yi (First Railway) School, now Xi’an Tie Yi High School. From the principal who provided a tour of the school to the students who laughed and played sports with each other in the courtyard, Smith says the people exhibited the same generosity and energy of those back home.

Elaborating on her memories of Tie Yi, Smith said: “Immediately, we noted the differences between First Railway and the other schools we visited.... After a two-day visit, it became very clear through meetings with administrators, teachers, and students that this school mirrored the same educational values that we held in BCPS: a true commitment to the education of the entire child.”

To strengthen that commitment, Smith says she and her colleagues agreed to host a lunch for BCPS and Tie Yi students at Dulaney High in August. Visiting during a trip to the United States for a music competition, the Tie Yi students not only met members of Dulaney High’s marching band but started friendships with them, as well.

“Because they did not have an interpreter with them, we contacted parents who spoke Chinese, and volunteers arrived,” Smith said about the Tie Yi students and the lunch with them. “The students performed together, ate Chick-fil-A together, and essentially formed unusually tight bonds in a very brief afternoon.”

While the Tie Yi students returned to China shortly thereafter, their visit helped lay the groundwork for an exchange program. The next year, Dulaney hosted nine Tie Yi students and sent some of its own – including several who had attended the lunch in August – to China.

“There were five students and one teacher from Dulaney High School who went on the first trip to China in 2007,” Wilson-Matusky said. “I was the first teacher to go.”

Although travelling to China was a new experience for the students involved in the first exchange, hearing and speaking Chinese wasn’t. At the same time that BCPS looked to forge a partnership overseas, Dulaney High launched a Chinese language pilot program. Supported by a second partnership with Towson University, the program introduced students to Mandarin Chinese, one of the most widely-used languages in China.

“It was like Chinese 101,” Wilson-Matusky said about the pilot program. “They learned the basics of how to communicate in the language.”

Applying the lessons that they learned in the pilot program, the students were able to explore China and bond with the locals during their eight-week stay. When they returned to Baltimore later that summer, BCPS started looking for ways to expand its Chinese language pilot and exchange programs.

A Steady Growth

In 2008, the China Cultural Exchange program’s current application process and travel schedule were mostly in place: BCPS students would apply in September and receive acceptance decisions in October. Throughout November, the program’s coordinators would meet the students’ families, ensuring that they were prepared to host an exchange student. Additional preparation for the students would continue into December with two orientation meetings. In January or February, depending on the date of the Spring Festival in China, BCPS families would welcome their exchange students for a six- or seven-week stay.

But the rest of the travel schedule, wherein BCPS students and teachers would travel to China in May, didn’t carry out as planned. Instead, an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province, affecting the surrounding areas and postponing the second half of the exchange.

About the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Wilson-Matusky said: “After hosting 14 students from Tie Yi, the BCPS group going to China was delayed by an earthquake in China in May. They later went in September and stayed a shorter time.”

Despite the schedule change, however, the program met better luck the next year: Hereford High School joined the exchange, and Towson High School offered to host several Chinese students. In 2010, Towson High became further involved by participating in both parts of the exchange.

For the two years after that, the China Cultural Exchange program continued to grow, attracting more applicants from each of the three high schools. As exciting as the increased interest in the program was, though, Wilson-Matusky says it was also somewhat overwhelming.

“I was developing forms, finding hosts, and helping to coordinate the trips while I was still a librarian at Dulaney High School,” she said. “The program had grown so much, and I couldn’t keep up with it, so they brought me into the Office of World Languages to take over as coordinator and focus on making it countywide.”

According to Wilson-Matusky, BCPS sought to expand the program for a few reasons. For one, the school system hoped to equalize opportunities for its students.

About the effort to ensure fairness, Wilson-Matusky said: “Originally, it was supposed to be a program for students who were studying Chinese, a way to take their learning beyond the classroom. But we wanted it to be equitable, so we opened it to all high schools.”

Wilson-Matusky adds that the expansion to all high schools became particularly important as Chinese language programs spread across the county. As she explains, BCPS students attend art, music, tai chi, and other classes in China to supplement the cultural instruction that they receive in their Chinese language classes at home. But their study abroad benefits them in other ways, too. By interacting with native speakers, students develop their ability not only to communicate in another language but to understand other cultures, as well.

About the advantages of the program, Wilson-Matusky said: “Research shows that, if you want to be proficient in a second language, you need to be immersed in the language.... Our world is so small that you can’t avoid meeting people who speak different languages or are from different cultures. You need to be able to respect and appreciate another point of view, and that’s what this program teaches.”

Since 2007, Wilson-Matusky estimates that 200 BCPS students and 200 to 300 Tie Yi students have become more familiar with other languages and cultures by participating in the China Cultural Exchange program. But, even as groups as large as 30 students and teachers have traveled to China and 16 BCPS middle and high schools now offer Chinese language courses, Wilson-Matusky still sees more opportunities for growth in the future.

A Hopeful View

While nearly a decade has passed since she has seen some of them in person, Wilson-Matusky says she uses email and other means to stay in touch with the program’s past participants.

“It’s fun to see what happens after they go,” she said about BCPS students who have been involved in the program. “They’re already interested in China before they go, but they become so interested that they study Chinese or diplomacy or something else related to their experiences in their college program and then go back.”

But, despite the number of students who return to China to live, visit, or work there, Wilson-Matusky says the first trip through the program can pose a financial challenge for some. At about $3,000 per participant, the cost is less than that for other programs, including ones that students might pursue in college, because of the lack of housing expenses and tuition. Yet, even without these expenses, airfare still amounts to about two-thirds of the program’s total cost.

“It’s around $1,900 for the roundtrip,” Wilson-Matusky said. “If the airfare were cheaper, the program could be more accessible.”

To help cover airfare costs, Wilson-Matusky says she started a scholarship fund through the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools. Over the last few years, the fund has provided about 10 students with scholarships sponsored by fundraisers and local businesses. BCPS principals also have offered their support, often matching the students’ scholarship awards.

“It’s not easy to raise money,” Wilson-Matusky said about collecting funds for the program. “When you tell some of these students that the trip is going to cost $3,000, they look at you with glossed-over eyes like ‘That’s a dream I will never be able to achieve.’”

“But the scholarships are about $500,” she added, “and when the principals match them, that’s a third of the cost.”

While Wilson-Matusky says the scholarships have opened doors to travel for the students who need them, there’s another door she’d like to open to all BCPS students: the opportunity to study in other countries.

“It’s a dream for me,” she said about expanding the China Cultural Exchange program to include other destinations. “I would like to see it duplicated for Spanish and French.”

Looking into possible locations, Wilson-Matusky has focused primarily on Peru, Puerto Rico, and Quebec. However, while she says there’s potential for an expanded program, no formal plans are in place.

“We’re not quite there yet,” she said. “In my mind, it would be an amazing thing. We need to lay the foundation now because, in college, students aren’t really living with the families. Instead, they’re in dorms with other exchange students, but there’s a deeper meaning when they’re part of the community.”

As Wilson-Matusky continues to share this and similar benefits of the China Cultural Exchange program, she says she hopes others will see what makes her so passionate about it.

“Because it’s such a unique program, it doesn’t always fit into the expectations that our policies have,” she said about an obstacle she has noticed. “It’s a very valuable program because of the impact it has on our students. When they meet someone else from another culture, they’re open and understanding, and I think it makes them leaders. They take it in and become a leader among their peers. It makes them more confident.”

On their way to joining leaders from years past, the members of the tenth BCPS exchange group left on May 15 for a 47-day stay in China. On June 30, the 20 students and two teachers in the group will return to Baltimore County.

For more information about the BCPS China Cultural Exchange program, visit

Story by Blake Lubinski, Department of Communications and Community Outreach. Photos by Kelly Smith, coordinator, Office of Secondary English Language Arts.

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