Experienced firsthand: BCPS students, teachers share impact of China Cultural Exchange Program


“I knew [it] would be difficult,” admits Luke Gaylor, a 2014 graduate of Perry Hall High School; adds Margaret Ebacher-Rini, a 2014 graduate of Hereford High School, “I was aware that it would be extremely challenging.”

“I remember being nervous... [but] excited for what lay ahead,” recalls Sean McComb, a teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts and the 2014 National Teacher of the Year; agreeing, Katrina Rigby, a teacher at Arbutus Middle School, remembers that she was “instantly excited.”

“I wanted to learn as much as I could,” says Annie Seaman, a 2014 graduate of Hereford High School. “[B]ecause there was so much more out there for me.”

What are these five people talking about and how do they relate to one another? The answers to these questions are one and the same: Baltimore County Public Schools’ China Cultural Exchange Program.

An international possibility
Created in 2007, the program has attracted nearly 200 students and teachers from BCPS high schools located across the county. Students become eligible to participate in the program following a screening process, consisting of an application, informational meetings and an interview. From the pool of applicants, the BCPS Office of World Languages selects up to 30 ambassadors, who serve as hosts to Chinese students from Xi’an Tieyi (First Railway) High School during the winter and the Chinese students’ guests during the spring. The exchange culminates each July when the BCPS students and their teacher-chaperones return to Baltimore from Xi’an, China.

“The BCPS China Cultural Exchange Program is in its ninth exchange with Xi’an Tieyi High School in the Shaanxi province of China,” says Debbie Matusky, the program’s coordinator.

Certainly, with nearly a decade of exchanges under its belt, the program has amassed its fair share of participants who have felt its influence long after their involvement ended. Among such participants are Gaylor, Ebacher-Rini, Rigby, McComb and Seaman.

A chance exposure
A host during the 2012-2013 school year and a shadow student during the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years, Gaylor began studying Chinese in Grade 7. While his middle school offered him opportunities to learn a variety of languages, he explains that he “wanted a challenge.” For him, only Chinese presented it.

“Spanish and French would’ve been interesting,” Gaylor says. “But there was something about Chinese that I knew would be difficult and keep my interest.”

And keep his interest, it did. Fast forward three years to Gaylor’s sophomore year of high school, and he experienced what he calls his “first real exposure” to the China Cultural Exchange Program. According to him, five Tieyi students were in town, lodging with their host families and visiting his alma mater, Perry Hall High School. When Perry Hall High’s principal sought students to familiarize the visitors with the building, Gaylor’s Chinese IV teacher, Yi Long, recommended that he serve as the fifth volunteer. At his teacher’s encouragement, Gaylor accepted, agreeing to acclimate his student over a two-day shadow period and opening himself to an invaluable opportunity.

“[During the shadow period] is when I first noticed the value of the [China Cultural Exchange] program,” says Gaylor. “I got to practice my Chinese with a student who spoke very minimal English.”

Practice wasn’t all that came from Gaylor’s interaction with his student, though; “interest,” he adds, came, too. The following school year, Gaylor applied to the China Cultural Exchange Program in hopes of hosting a student. Soon after he received his acceptance into the program, Gaylor met Leo, a student from Tieyi High who would spend two months with Gaylor and his family.

“I have nothing but fond memories from my experiences [with Leo],” says Gaylor. “It may be rather strange, but my favorite memory of the program was reading [Leo’s] journals every day. He had to write a journal about what he did that day and his opinions on it... Eventually, Leo began writing his journals in Chinese, and I’d have to do my best to understand what he was writing. As a result, we were both able to work on each other’s language skills.”

Now, two years after he hosted Leo and one year after he served as a shadow student to a second Chinese visitor, Gaylor shares the lasting impact of the China Cultural Exchange Program on him.

“I made the decision to major in Chinese studies at Gettysburg College, as well as international affairs, as a result of the program,” says Gaylor. “The exposure to this culture, as well as the language, furthered my love of Chinese and Chinese culture. Without the program, I don’t know what I would decide to major in, but this program showed me the path I was destined to take.”

Next spring, Gaylor will travel to China to study abroad in Beijing. While he prepares for his first tour of the country, Margaret Ebacher-Rini, a second past participant in the exchange program, is in the midst of her third.

For Ebacher-Rini’s story, check back on Tuesday, July14, 2015.

Story by Blake Lubinski, Department of Communications and Community Outreach. Photo from the Office of World Languages.
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