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A traveler’s passion: BCPS educator explores, learns through China Cultural Exchange program



Lauren Magnuson has never been a stranger to travel.

As a college student, she was part of a singing group, visiting 45 states and staying with a different host family each night. As a parent, she bore three children in Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean Sea, and took trips to Aruba, Curaçao, Ecuador, and Venezuela. And, as a library media specialist at Kenwood High School, she has access to countless books and resources about lands both near and far.

But, despite having access to similar books and resources as the library media specialist at Perry Hall High School in 2011, Magnuson sought more. So, when the opportunity came to participate in the BCPS China Cultural Exchange program, she jumped at it, even without knowing exactly what she was getting into. 

“[I knew] very little!” Magnuson said about her familiarity with China and Chinese language before the trip. “I took a [Community College of Baltimore County] Mandarin introduction class, which mostly served to reinforce that the language is extremely difficult!”

In spite of the challenges that she faced during her short study of Mandarin, however, Magnuson said she was interested in the BCPS program for two reasons.

“I love to travel,” she said, “and [I] believe that the opportunity to travel and live with families is one of the most authentic experiences students can have.”

That passion for travel, combined with her understanding of its value to students, helped Magnuson become one of three volunteers selected to chaperone the 2011 trip. Joined by Cheryl Milligan, an art teacher at Towson High School, and Mara Rochon, a Chinese teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, she accompanied 27 BCPS students on a plane to China.

SpotlightMagnuson and her host family pose for a picture

Spotlight Magnuson and Ma Jin Ye spend an evening in downtown Xi’an on the last night of the 2011 trip

SpotlightMagnuson sings a Chinese folk song with a retiree in a park

SpotlightMagnuson makes dumplings with Ma Jin Ye’s mother and a co-host

Spotlight Magnuson and Ma Jin Ye enjoy a canal boat ride on a trip to a city near Shanghai

SpotlightMagnuson watches an artist paint a Chinese fan. Today, she has several of the artist’s fans and wall hangings in her home

Trip one to China

When Magnuson left for the three-month trip abroad, her tour group became the fifth from BCPS to participate in the China Cultural Exchange program. However, the 2011 tour group was different than ones before it because of its size. While Tie Yi (First Railway) School, the school system’s exchange partner in Xi’an, China, had sent as many as 30 students to Baltimore County in previous years, BCPS tour groups had peaked at 17 students in 2010.

“2011 was the first year with such a large number of students going on the trip,” Magnuson said, “which changed [the] dynamics in our relationship with the host school and with managing a large group.”

Although Magnuson said the changed dynamics stemmed mostly from trying to form close ties with one another – as she wrote in a blog post from the trip, “Melding 30 people into one ‘family’ takes time and emotional energy!” – the larger group also had its advantages. For one, students from seven BCPS high schools were able to bond with each other while practicing Mandarin, learning traditional art forms, and taking day trips to cultural landmarks. What’s more, Magnuson, Milligan, and Rochon also were able to identify ways to improve the China Cultural Exchange program.

Discussing those opportunities for improvement, Magnuson said: “After the 2011 experience, the chaperones were able to give a great amount of feedback on how to make the experience even better for the students and their parents, our host school, and future chaperones.”

From offering parents more support throughout the exchange to organizing more structured activities for the students, the suggestions that Magnuson, Milligan, and Rochon provided went into effect the following year. And, when they did, Magnuson was able to experience them firsthand by volunteering as a chaperone for a second time.

Back again

“Because I was able to return for a second summer and had a good relationship with the staff at our host school, I was able to help implement the agreed-upon changes and provide continuity for the program,” she said. “I was also very excited to have more time with my Chinese family!”

Magnuson again stayed with a woman named Ma Jin Ye and her daughter, Ma Le. With their help, Magnuson said she not only learned about Chinese culture but experienced it, too: from making noodles and dumplings to playing traditional games and bartering in the markets.

But, as much as she learned about Chinese culture from her experiences abroad, Magnuson said she also gained insight into her profession.

“Chaperoning the Cultural Exchange students to China in 2011 and 2012 had a significant impact on me as an educator,” she said. “The opportunity to experience firsthand how students in China are taught has deepened my understanding of education in different cultural settings and the importance of culturally-relevant education.”

Since returning to the United States after her second stay in China, Magnuson said she has found ways to apply the knowledge that she gained to her lessons. At Perry Hall High, for instance, she often visited world history classes as a guest speaker, sharing stories and showing photographs from her two trips. And, at Kenwood High, she now keeps a tri-fold of photographs on display in the library and inserts others into her presentations. Most recently, she included several photographs in a presentation on using Smart Art in PowerPoint, allowing her to speak briefly about her trips.

“Whenever possible, I try to talk about experiences I had in China,” Magnuson said about incorporating the photographs into her instruction. “A lot of my stories are relayed to students during one-on-one conversations throughout the day.”

Whether part of her lessons or her other social interactions, though, Magnuson’s stories are more than a chance for her to reminisce about her time abroad. In fact, she said they’re opportunities to learn – about China, its culture, and its languages. For educators in particular, they’re also opportunities to learn about new approaches to teaching.

 “It is impactful,” Magnuson said, “to see the profession of teachers through the eyes of Chinese teachers and to really reflect on your beliefs about educational pedagogy and how students learn. It provides you with opportunities for personal growth that then make you a better person and, in turn, a better teacher.”

Hopes for a reunion

Although five years have passed since Magnuson first experienced education in China, she said she continues to learn about the country through articles, books, and shows on National Public Radio. She also stays in touch with her host family, sending emails and sharing photographs until they can meet again in person.

“I remain hopeful that I will be able to return to China to visit with my Chinese family at some point in the future,” Magnuson said. “My Chinese daughter is hoping to come to the U.S. for graduate school in the near future, so I may have the chance to return their hospitality.”

As Magnuson looks forward to a possible reunion with her host family, she said she knows one thing is for sure: “My life, professionally and personally, is so much richer as a result of the China Cultural Exchange program.”

Since 2007, the BCPS China Cultural Exchange program has provided more than 20 educators with the opportunity to travel abroad. For more information about the program, visit

Story by Blake Lubinski, Department of Communications and Community Outreach. Photos by Lauren Magnuson, library media specialist, Kenwood High School.

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