STUDENT Spotlight
Laura Hillard, China Cultural Exchange Program participant

Student Spotlight is a regularly-updated feature that highlights Baltimore County Public Schools students involved in a wide range of activities and programs. In this Student Spotlight, Laura Hillard, a Grade 12 student at Dulaney High School, discusses her involvement in the China Cultural Exchange Program. (To see more student spotlights, , click here.)

Student Spotlight
Laura Hillard, China Cultural Exchange Program participant

How long have you studied Chinese?
I began to study Chinese in Grade 7 at Ridgely Middle School and I just completed my sixth consecutive year studying the language.

Why did you choose to study Chinese?
As silly as this may sound, I began to study Chinese because I loved Mulan as a kid. She was my favorite Disney princess, and because of the movie, I began to take great interest in Chinese culture starting when I was seven or eight years old. I checked out a book about Chinese from my elementary school library and learned how to say “ni hao.”

As I grew older, my interest in Chinese culture became more serious. I was fascinated by the great difference between our cultures and the rising importance of China in modern society. In Grade 7, it was an easy choice when they asked me what language I would like to study. I have been studying Chinese through Baltimore County Public Schools since then and plan to continue to study Chinese in college next year.

What is the China Cultural Exchange Program?
The China Cultural Exchange Program provides amazing opportunities for students in Xi’an, China and Baltimore, Maryland to connect and learn. Each February, Chinese students come to Baltimore in order to stay with an American student and attend an American high school. The Chinese students have the opportunity to create relationships with Americans, perfect their English and visit American universities that they potentially will attend in a few years.
After the Chinese students return home, the American students whom they stayed with travel to China in order to stay with the Chinese students’ families. The American students learn Chinese, create close relationships with the Chinese and get to see amazing parts of Chinese culture.

The trip provides great opportunities for students to completely immerse themselves in another culture by attending a foreign high school, living with a foreign family and spending two months in a foreign country.

How and when did you become interested in the program?
When I was in Grade 5, a close family friend told me about the exchange program, and I instantly hoped to be a part of it when I was old enough. During my sophomore year of high school, I finally applied to the China Cultural Exchange Program and was lucky enough to be accepted.

What was the extent of your involvement in the program?
I was a host for one Chinese student during the winter of 2013, a student ambassador with the program and the creator of my year’s video to show parents and teachers about our trip during the summer of 2013, and an interviewer of applicants and recruiter of future applicants during the fall of 2013.

What did you learn from the program?
The program gave me a chance to learn firsthand about Chinese language and culture. I was able to take tai chi classes from a descendant of the founder of the art, learn how to make dumplings from my Chinese grandmother, practice bargaining in Xi’an’s market and so on. Every day in the program, I had a new experience that taught me another valuable lesson about Chinese culture.

The program surrounded me with native Chinese speakers, so I could constantly practice my language skills. I was able to learn things, like slang and different pronunciations, that I would have never been about to learn in a traditional classroom.

Student SpotlightThe trip also taught me important countless life skills, like managing my own money and communicating. The program helps students learn how to take care of themselves and prepares students to live on their own in the future. Out of all of my experiences in the BCPS system, this program prepared me the most for college.

The program made China my classroom for two months. I was able to learn so many interesting parts of Chinese culture just by observing the people around me.

What is your favorite memory from the program?
I have always had a lot of trouble answering this question because every day on the trip was so amazing. All of my favorite experiences involved interacting with the Chinese people. If I absolutely had to choose one memory, it would be spending the day in the Muslim Market in Xi’an. My friends and I would be able to talk to locals, taste cuisine from street vendors and shop for souvenirs. In the beginning of the trip, we met a shop owner, Yu Jing, who hand painted scrolls with Bible verses in traditional Chinese calligraphy. We would spend hours in her shop, talking to her. She would teach us some calligraphy, and we would teach her American card games. One day when she did not have enough time to finish painting a scroll for me, she had her son personally deliver it to my Chinese school so that I could receive it before I went back to America. Relationships like the one we made with Yu Jing were the most meaningful part of my experience.

What was the most challenging part about participating in the program?
The most challenging experience for me was learning the culture. Every moment, I was afraid one of my actions would offend someone or lead to some sort of miscommunication. My student explained a lot of it to me, and over time, it became easy interacting with the Chinese citizens.

Student SpotlightOverall, what impact did the program have on you?
The program was the first time that I left the country and the first time that I was separated from my family for an extended period of time. It taught me how to be independent and it also gave me a better understanding of how large the world really is.
I am so thankful for the friends that I made in China and the memories that I now have. In the future, I want a career that helps those in need around the world. The program developed my interest in international policy and language.
Overall, the program made me a life learner. Instead of just trying to learn in a classroom, I now understand that every day and every experience has a valuable lesson. I now try to always be curious and open-minded about the world around me.

What would you like others who are interested in studying Chinese or participating in the exchange program to know?
I would just fully encourage anyone interested in the program to attend. It is a large commitment but it is completely worth every second of the experience. Whenever someone tells me that he or she is interested in the program, I always take time to explain how the program changed my life. I am so grateful for this opportunity and hope others enjoy it, as well.

What are your plans for post-graduation?
I plan to attend George Mason University in the fall with a major in global affairs with a focus in international development. I also plan to minor in Chinese and have another minor in management. I want to work in non-profit management or international policy in the future.

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