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Chinese language class shapes Blugolds' college journey

| Judy Berthiaume

After three years of high school Spanish classes, Katelyn Kannel was anxious to learn a new language when she came to UW-Eau Claire as a freshman.

As she was exploring her options, a Chinese language class caught her eye.

“At the time, the thought of French and German scared me, so I didn't want to do those,” Kannel says. “I remember my mom always telling me when I was a kid that Chinese would be super useful to know, so when I saw it on the list and had already decided against French, German and Spanish, I decided to try it out. I was not nervous at all; for some reason I just thought Chinese would be easier than French and German.”

Now a senior who will graduate in May, Kannel — an information systems major with a Chinese minor — says taking that first Chinese language class four years ago shaped her college experience in ways she never could have predicted.

The class, taught by Dr. Kaishan Kong, assistant professor of languages, piqued her curiosity and inspired her to learn more about China.

“I now will always be interested in this part of the world,” says Kannel, a senior from Ellsworth. “Their culture and language are so different from our own, they are a very large and growing economic factor in the world, and they have a great impact on the world.”

Thanks to a faculty-student research project, Kannel recently had the opportunity to travel to China, where she gained research skills, honed her language skills and immersed herself in Chinese culture.

Kong led the research team, which included Kannel and Blugolds Caitlin Hedberg and Youa Xiong.

During their three weeks in China, the researchers visited two regions, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta, to investigate the sociocultural factors that inform Chinese students’ educational decisions, and regional differences in educational accessibility.

To gather data for their research, the Blugolds visited eight K-16 schools, collected 195 surveys and interviewed 60 people, including parents, students and faculty members.

They also visited a KFC restaurant in Guangzhou to learn about the western fast food industry in China.

“Our research project focused on studying the socioeconomic and regional effects on education in China,” Kannel says. “What interests me about this project is the societal pressure that affects students' decisions on education, which is rooted in the Chinese culture.

“For example, in America parents are usually sent to nursing homes when they become older, but in China it is expected that children will grow to have good jobs to take care of their families for the rest of their lives. Therefore, many students choose jobs they are not exactly passionate about to be able to support and sustain their families.”

While the research was the focus of their immersion, the Blugolds also participated in multiple cultural events in China, including staying with a host family, spending time with their Chinese “buddies,” giving presentations in Chinese schools and performing in a school annual gala.

“The highlight of the experience was meeting the people for sure,” Kannel says. “Chinese students are very funny, talented and hardworking.”

The Chinese high school students she met work incredibly hard, managing daily schedules that surprised her, she says.

To get into college, high school students in China take a national exam called the GaoKao, which requires every student in the nation to compete against one another.

“As a result, in high school, students wake up at 6 a.m. to study, go to class all day, then go to night class or cram school, and then do their homework at night,” Kannel says. “Typically, students go to bed at midnight, and only take a few hours for themselves. This is just one example of the difference in school structure in China versus the United States. It’s something that will stick with me.”

Kannel says her time in China has had a lasting impact on how she sees the world and her place in it.

“The experience added to my thinking about the world and my future,” Kannel says. “I started learning Chinese as a freshman, and I know I will continue to study it. I hope to become fluent in Chinese in the future. I will find opportunities to continue practicing speaking the language, and I will keep in touch with my Chinese friends to keep practicing.

“This experience also makes me more interested about the rest of the world, and learning about other cultures and ways of doing things. I am now even more interested in working internationally at some point in the future.”

Kong says the Blugolds’ work as researchers was impressive and they represented UW-Eau Claire extraordinarily well.

“They did a fabulous job conducting research, learning about cultures and interacting with local communities,” Kong says. “They all came from different majors: physics, information systems and linguistics. What they did in China exemplifies the Power of AND.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students tour a Buddhist temple during an immersion in China. The group includes (from left): Blugolds Youa Xiong, Katelyn Kannel and Caitlin Hedberg, and Dong Laoshi, a professor from Changshu Institute of Technology in China.