October 23, 2014

CVU study abroad program highlights Vermont’s growing China focus

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Champlain Valley Union High School Principal Sean McMannon visits CVU students (from left to right) Elliot DeMatteis, Andy Wise, Owen MacFadyen and Emily Polhemus at Datong High School in Shanghai. The four students are studying abroad at Vermont International Academy, a Vermont-accredited high school embedded within Datong. (Observer courtesy photo)

Observer staff

China is the most populous country in the world, with a population of more than 1 billion.

Vermont is the second least populous state in the U.S., with a population of less than 1 million.

At first glance, Vermont might seem to be an unlikely destination for Chinese students seeking a study abroad experience. But Jim Cross, associate provost and senior international officer at Champlain College, believes that establishing partnerships with Chinese schools is important to both increase diversity and spur economic growth in Vermont.

“We identified the market demand for Chinese students who want to come and study in the United States,” Cross said. “We’re looking at linking education to economic development for the state of Vermont. Right now, at the college level we have a relatively small number of international students compared to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York, but it still contributes over $35 million to the state economy.”

The difficulty, Cross said, is that while Chinese students often score well on U.S. college entrance exams, many struggle in interactive college classroom settings.

“Primarily, the Chinese educational system teaches to the test, and it’s not interactive classrooms. It’s very much the teacher provides information to the students, they memorize it and then repeat it on the exams,” Cross said. “So we were seeing a demand in China for an American-style high school curriculum for Chinese students who were self-identifying that they wanted to come to college in the United States.”

That’s where Vermont International Academy comes in. Located within Datong High School in Shanghai, VIA is an accredited Vermont high school that features Vermont-licensed instructors.

Cross, who serves as president of VIA in addition to his Champlain College duties, said the mission of VIA is twofold.

“Vermont International Academy is really living out this concept of on the one hand, promoting Vermont as an education destination for international students, but also creating opportunities at a secondary level for Vermont students to go abroad,” he said.

VIA has partnered with Champlain Valley Union High School and Burlington High School to offer Vermont students the opportunity to spend a semester or full school year abroad. Currently, four CVU seniors are studying at VIA as part of its inaugural class: Elliot DeMatteis of Hinesburg, Owen MacFadyen of Burlington, Emily Polhemus of Shelburne and Andy Wise of Shelburne.

CVU Principal Sean McMannon recently traveled to Shanghai to observe the VIA program and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Datong High School. He praised the cultural experience the students are receiving, while also noting that certain elements of the program still need to be ironed out.

“My impressions were that it’s a wonderful cultural experience for students,” McMannon said. “I think with any new programming like this there’s always challenges. We’re only really two months into it, and there have been challenges. Datong has not hosted long-term exchange students like this before. So there are some growing pains that are happening in terms of the structure of the academic program and the cultural understandings between Western students and Chinese rules at a boarding school.”

Unlike at CVU, where students enjoy senior privileges and are allowed to leave campus when not in classes, students at Datong High School cannot leave during the day and are held to rigid curfews at night (6 p.m. on weekdays, 8 p.m. on weekends). They are also subject to a mandatory lights out policy at 10 p.m. and must adhere to a dress code.

Academically, the American students are still receiving instruction in core curriculum subjects such as math and science, but are also serving as English tutors to a group of 46 Chinese 10th-graders enrolled at VIA.

The Chinese students currently enrolled at VIA will be given the opportunity to study at CVU or BHS in their senior year, in the hope that it will better prepare them for future success at an American college or university.

“Part of why Datong wants to cultivate these partnerships is because they recognize the value in our pedagogy in terms of how it supports critical thinking and inquiry and innovation and creativity,” McMannon said. “So they are very interested in that, so I think that will be part of what we can offer from our side of the exchange.”

Next semester, McMannon said, the China study program will include sophomore students from CVU. He said it fits into CVU’s larger mission to expand its global reach.

“It’s just amazing to think about what CVU could really do on an international level with creating more partnerships with other schools around the world, and having students from all over the world come and spend time at CVU,” McMannon said.

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