BYU Kennedy Center China Teachers Share Love of Service
Brigham Young University counsels its Kennedy Center “China Teachers” to remember, “You can’t change China.” With 1.3 billion people and a recorded history of over 5,000 years, the culture has a lot of momentum. One person really can’t make a difference. Trying to make a change can drive you crazy.
Apparently, no one told Becky Mitchell.
Becky first came to China with her husband Ken in the fall of 2000 to teach at Shandong Medical University in Jinan for one year as part of the BYU Kennedy Center program. They returned in 2002 to teach English at Nanjing University, staying through the spring semester of 2003 and returned home. Apparently, they left something—perhaps a piece of their hearts—in China, because they returned again to teach—this time in Beijing—for a semester in the spring of 2004. This was the last of their service eligible for formal participation in the BYU program.
It seems that Becky still didn’t feel like she’d finished what she came to do, so she returned with Ken in the fall of 2009 to teach at Nanjing University. When I met her in the spring of 2012, she reluctantly acknowledged that this would likely be her last year in China.
For Becky, teaching English was an excuse to share her love of service with China. While there are innumerable kind people in China, organized volunteering is relatively new—something that began emerging in the 1980s and is becoming genuinely fashionable among high school and college students in modern China, but for most people here it is something you do once or twice to say you’ve done it.
Back in 2002, Becky was assigned to teach some classes on a satellite campus of Nanjing University one day each week. The campus was in Pukou, across the Yangtze River from Nanjing, requiring her to travel about an hour in each direction. With both a morning and an afternoon class, she had time to fill at lunch. I can’t help but think that a real English teacher would have relished this time to read each day, but as I told you, Becky is not a real English teacher. Instead, she invited her students to join her each week for “leadership training.”
She was surprised that most of her students chose to participate in this optional leadership training session each week. As the semester wore on, Becky drew on her years of experience with 4-H to form her leadership group into a 4-H chapter. They decided to do two things that turned out to have an enduring impact. First, they decided to have a Christmas party, complete with a Santa Claus (played by Ken) and to raise money at the party for a yet to be defined program to help needy children that they would later call “The Sunshine Project.”
For the party, the students built a beautifully decorated donation box with signs suggesting donations to help needy children. The students contributed about $100 as a group at the party.
During this same semester, Becky was also teaching English to faculty who participated on a volunteer basis to improve their English (which is helpful, especially for publishing academic papers). Becky became close with some of the teachers and invited them over to her apartment on Christmas Eve where the teachers saw the beautifully decorated donation box and also contributed. Three of them—later joined by a fourth faculty friend—were particularly eager to help and wanted to know what they could do to be involved.
Becky asked the four to help find a project that they could undertake using the funds they’d raised. She especially wanted to find something where she could involve the student volunteers in helping with the project, not just donating money and sending it along.
One of the teachers, Hua Wei Na, an Information Science professor, found two schools in a distant, rural suburb of Nanjing that were interested in the help from the University volunteers. Becky and Wei Na visited the two schools. At the larger of the two, the school was able to quickly articulate uses for the money, but could not articulate a need for the volunteers.
At the other school, Gao Chuan Special Education School, a much smaller and less well-funded boarding school for deaf children, they were eager to have the volunteers get involved to provide an opportunity for their children to interact with hearing people—an opportunity that they rarely had. They also learned that their money could be used to enroll more students at the school who couldn’t otherwise attend, but who also needed the special programs it offered.
It was exactly what they had been hoping to find. Working together with students, the four teachers and Becky, they organized a “Fun Field Day” to visit the little school in Gao Chuan. On that first visit, they rounded up several used computers and bought a new printer. They didn’t just drop them off; they took them in and set them up, connecting them to the internet.
These were the first computers in the school. Imagine the difference it made in the lives of these students who had not had an opportunity to use a computer before and had little means of communicating with people outside the deaf community to suddenly be introduced to email, allowing them to establish relationships with anyone in the world. Immediately, relationships began to blossom between the university students and young children at the Gao Chuan school.
Since those early days nearly ten years ago, two of the students from the school, later qualified to attend a special school in Nanjing for high school and then enrolled at a university. It is hard to imagine them accomplishing that without the benefit of the computers and mentors provided by the Sunshine Project.
Every semester now for almost ten years the Sunshine Project has continued to make visits to the school and to provide money to enroll more students who cannot afford to pay on their own. Initially, the Sunshine Project funded scholarships for seven students and that has grown now to twenty, representing one out of every six of the 120 students at the special school. In addition to scholarships, they help the school with uniforms, computers, milk, t-shirts and other needs. In all, they now donate 5,000 RMB (about $750) every semester.
Even during Becky’s years at home in the U.S., she has continued to stay involved, raising money from family and friends, including members of her ward, and donating goods to help the Sunshine Program continue its work.
The special school has evolved over the years, too. With more government funding, they now have new facilities and a larger enrollment. In addition to students with hearing impairments, the school began enrolling students with intellectually challenges; this group has become much larger than the deaf group.