SHANGHAI, China - As my time in China comes to a close - I leave for the U.S. on Aug. 1 - I am spending my remaining days in my current job in Shanghai at a summer college admissions camp for Chinese high school students. I have spent the past 18 months working with Chinese students applying to U.S. or UK universities, and as this is my penultimate column on China, it is a good time to explain my work.
I have been working for a Chinese education company that offers international education to Chinese high school students. China's high school education system prepares students to take the gao kao ("high test"), which is the entrance exam all Chinese students must take to be accepted to college in China. It is a two-day, extremely high-stakes test - students get into a college and a major based on how they do on this test. Many students and parents would prefer to go to college in the West, where students are evaluated for admission on more factors than just test scores and students have more options and time to choose a major.
I have worked with Chinese high school students who are enrolled in Chinese high schools but are studying in a Western system, such as the American Advanced Placement or the UK's A-Level program. These students are able to take such courses because their Chinese high school offers an international curriculum program, which allows Chinese nationals to enroll in a foreign program while still attending a Chinese high school. The company I work for hires foreign teachers and runs these international education programs in Chinese high schools.
I have not worked as an academic teacher but as an "academic ambassador," a recent graduate of an American college available to answer questions about American culture and college life and to help students understand the American college admissions process. The American college application process is certainly complex: while there is a Common Application, there are also supplemental essays, a personal statement, teacher recommendations, activity lists, standardized test scores, and much more. The process of applying to a U.S. college starts in the spring of a high school student's junior year and is not fully completed until April, May, or June of their senior year.
In my work, I have led "Reading Club" activities in which I've introduced Chinese students to U.S. history and American literature. I've given presentations on life in the United States and American etiquette - in these sessions, I've demonstrated to students the differences between a firm handshake and a limp one and the differences in the amount of personal space necessitated by Americans and Chinese. I have answered many anxious questions about drinking and partying at U.S. colleges - most Chinese do not start drinking until they start professional careers, and many students worry about being offered alcohol at parties in the U.S. I explain tipping, the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and I have answered questions about opening presents on Christmas Day.
Students have brought me their drafts of college application essays, which I have read and given suggestions on. I have learned, through experience, that Chinese students are taught to write essays in a different style than the expository manner in which college application essays are intended to be written. It has been gratifying to work with students and watch their essays transform, slowly, draft after draft, into stories that bring the students' unique personality into their college applications.
If applying to college is done carefully and with enough foresight, the experience can be a process in which a teenager takes stock of his or her life, talents, interests, and future. I look back fondly on the fall of my own senior year of high school, in which I wrote drafts of my college essays late into the evening in the computer labs at Bay College, where I took classes as dual-enrolled high school student. It was a period of my life in which I thought carefully about who I was, where I came from, and where I hoped to go. When you talk to a teenager about where they would like to go to college, you are essentially asking a young person how they hope to start out their life. And when you communicate with students from China who hope to study in the U.S., your questions inevitably ask them to think about how they might adjust to a new culture.
It is time for me to move on to new line of work, but I will always look fondly on my days in Chinese classrooms. I've listened to students tell me, quite literally, their hopes and dreams, and I've led classes through PowerPoint presentations on The Great Gatsby and on the Civil Rights movement. It has been deeply gratifying to share my American culture with others. It also has been a privilege to learn not just about the culture of another country and its people, but also about the experiences and opinions of teenagers going through a process I remember as being so meaningful for myself.
- - -
Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.