Student Interview: Shenzhen – New York

This past semester, I taught the (adult) Staff here at my university.  It was an interesting and exciting 16 weeks, working on English language acquisition while also addressing issues pertaining to global educational inequalities.  Myself, as an American who had recently taught in Africa, contrasted my experiences with theirs, most of whom had undergraduate level education in China but had traveled abroad for Masters and Doctoral work.

One of my students, Sandy, approached me after class asking if I could help her son, Michael, as he was a Senior in High School exploring options for universities in the United States.  I of course welcomed the opportunity to assist him, meeting the next week to discuss the circumstances surrounding his decision.  During his high school years, Michael’s parents had taken him on an extensive tour of American universities and he had decided upon completing his tertiary education in the States.  He came to me with questions about specifics including the difference in campus culture between the University of Miami and the University of Wisconsin(?!) as well as the educational guidelines for deciding upon a major with the option to change if need be.  It was refreshing to speak with a student who viewed the university experience as a part of collective personal growth, not solely limited to what takes place inside a classroom.

One of his interests was NYU, and he was curious to learn more.  Through my networking as part of the USC Alumni Association of Shenzhen, I had come in contact with Mark, the President of the NYU Shenzhen Alumni Association, and reached out to him to see if he would be interested in sharing information with Michael.  We set up a lunch meeting, and over the best Cantonese food I have ever eaten, we discussed the cultural and educational realities of being an International Chinese student at a place like NYU.  Throughout the nearly three-hour long meeting, we touched upon issues ranging from class size to campus diversity, and from the availability of Chinese food to the safety measures implemented by the school.  Michael and his parents listened intently, asking valid questions which addressed legitimate concerns while Mark told them of the countless benefits of attending school abroad, both from an international as well as domestic perspective.

Needless to say, Michael accepted the offer to attend NYU in the Fall, and has since been involved with the university’s preparatory committees both in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  He and his parents will fly to New York in August for the welcoming convocation and begin the long (and expensive) path of university life in America.  In an effort to share his story, I interviewed Michael last week, and have now put together a 10-minute video where he talks about his decisions, the process, and his hopes for the future.  As someone who continues to have the opportunity to view education through different cultural lenses, I was grateful to have met Michael through his mom, one of my students; a testament to the global perspective I try to highlight in my classes.

If you have the time, I encourage you to watch the video, as it highlights the circumstances of a modern day young Chinese student and his understanding of international education, including the benefits of an expanded worldview which comes with studying abroad, where truly, the world is your classroom…


TOEFL: Linguistic Gateway to the World

Last year at this time, I was teaching on behalf of the U.S. Embassy’s Opportunity Fund, working with at-risk students in Ethiopia, helping them prepare for and apply to colleges and universities in the United States. This included preparation for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), Personal Statement essay writing, and of course, training for the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). All three are necessary for admittance to U.S. universities such as USC, Brown or Cornell, securing these students a path out of East Africa and paving their future with an education which will in turn help them reach their dreams.

This summer I find myself once again teaching TOEFL, this time to Chinese university students, most of whom have a vastly different set of educational realities which face them, including postgraduate degrees abroad and applications to some of the world’s leading high-tech companies.

Yet it is the same amount of motivation which I have found in classrooms around the world — students understanding the importance of English and the role it plays in acting as a gateway to global ambitions. The use of an adjective to describe a noun isn’t what will lead to aspired accomplishments, rather it is universal acceptance which comes with learning a second language and the social adaptation which underscores the importance of tests like TOEFL, measuring not only linguistic ability, but cultural understanding as well.

Two hours a day over the course of four weeks I worked with students at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) on speaking and listening skillsets associated with the TOEFL test. Contrast transition words providing clues to important shifts in the speaker’s content while intonation and variations in pitch highlight meaning and connotation.

Group Work

The topics of our listening examples shed light on Americanisms, where distance is measured in miles and where weight is abbreviated as lbs. The 30 students in our class laugh at the unfunny jokes, feign interest in the topics discussed, and gaze at words like vitriolic; the whole time understanding that this is a necessary means to an end. Intensive linguistic learning takes place on a different set of gears than in a regular 16-week semester, but still, lessons are shared by all, with myself careful to facilitate learning, not to master.

With previous experience teaching TOEFL courses in Ethiopia, and before that, South Korea, I feel confident that my practice within a Chinese context has likewise gone smoothly, encouraging student learning through cooperation, giving them ownership over materials which at times may seem as foreign to them as the idioms often mentioned in our listening exercises.

As the teacher, I am able to learn too, gaining cultural insight from my students, much as was the case in Africa, as each set of students learns differently. Grateful for these global opportunities, I hope that my instruction through TOEFL pedagogy will similarly give these students the same international prospects I have been afforded, expanding their worldview while opening a linguistic gateway to the world.

China – Cambodia: Cross Cultural Education

The physical divide that exists between Shenzhen, China and Phnom Penh, Cambodia has been mitigated by nonstop flights and social media, bridging the gap which stretches across the South China Sea.  As a result, the development of cooperative educational, economic and environmental partnerships has reached outside of the boardrooms and into the classrooms of respective universities, looking for ways to implement creative and innovative ideas into the minds of students before they take their seat at the corporate table.  Cross-cultural educational exchanges offer opportunities whereby students and teachers can learn about the complexities of life in different countries while at the same time working collectively on finding solutions to common problems both inside as well as outside the classroom.

Through research, innovation and entrepreneurship, the university I teach at, Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), has a goal to become a top-tier international university which attracts scholars and students from across the globe focusing on interdisciplinary research.  With both undergraduate and graduate programs which emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, SUSTech is looking beyond borders to attract the best and brightest students to continue their studies in a dynamic learning environment.  Last month in Phenom Penh, Cambodia, I had the chance to work with my university’s Global Engagement Office on a recruiting and interview trip whereby we met with local students and educators about the opportunity to study in Shenzhen, where they can be taught by international professors surrounded by a global city.  For Cambodian university students, this affords them the prospect of expanding their educational, personal, and professional horizons, learning from world-class instructors while coupling their newfound knowledge with practical applications in one of the fastest growing cities on the planet.  For SUSTech, it helps to expand the global framework of their student-body, giving credence to the notion of internationalization, and the benefits which it brings to everyone involved.

The dichotomy between Chinese and Cambodian education is decreasing as our world becomes smaller and more globalized.  Innovative curriculum development paired with creative teaching pedagogy has gone to increase matriculation in both countries, in turn paving the road for sustainable growth as it pertains to the economy.  No one country acts as a model for the other, rather both China and Cambodia trade cultural and educational ideas, learning from one another much the same way students pair on a class project.  University scholarships, such as the one which SUSTech offers Cambodian students, underscore the importance of this bilateral partnership, with keen eyes peering towards the future where these ideas are rewarded with success.

Cambodian Royal Palace

Much like myself, an American teaching in China, the Cambodian students we interviewed understand the benefits of leaving one’s homeland for different cultural and educational opportunities overseas.  It isn’t that one country is better than the other, instead, it is the comprehension that the unique and varying perspectives we have as global citizens is what ultimately adds to the collective dialogue we wish to engage in together.  Similarly for these students, when they interact with their professors and classmates at Southern University of Science and Technology, they will help create a platform which is receptive to new educational ideas from different cultures, highlighting the model already in place between China and Cambodia.

Field Trip: English Speaking Club

For the past two Semesters, I have led the Southern University of Science and Technology’s Speaking Club, “Voice of SUSTech” through weekly meetings, assembling every Sunday night to practice conversational English in an informal environment.  These gatherings – not classes – act as a practical platform for English language acquisition in an authentic setting, where rankings, competitions and tests are not part of the curriculum.

In an effort to underscore the notion of genuine learning opportunities I helped the students plan a field trip outside of campus, where they could practice their English conversational skills in a setting which pushed the boundaries of their comfort zone.  Within language attainment, it is challenges which foster growth, whereas rote learning only promotes an adherence to bygone practices.  Wishing to promote lessons that the students could utilize outside the classroom, we organized a “Foreigner Interview Project” at Shekou, an area with many international restaurants and shops, so that the students would have ample opportunities to speak and interact with people from across the globe.

Mexican Lunch
Lunch at Tequila Coyotes Cantina

Gathering at Noon in a Mexican restaurant, there were about 20 students, in addition to five staff, each of whom joined for this unique educational experience.  Language is a part of culture, and even the introduction to Spanish language and Mexican food sparked curiosity, as during our lunch, Sophomore student Liu Changgao found an immediate interest, sitting down to interview the owner of the restaurant, creating an instantaneous cultural exchange between the two, bridging any division of separation through simple conversation, with English acting as the common language.  Ideas and practices such as these were the goal of this project, and a Chinese student speaking with a Mexican business owner is a testament to this notion, and an example of the power of comfortability with language in an everyday setting.

Over the course of nearly two hours on a Sunday afternoon, the students and staff from the Speaking Club were able to interview people from across the globe, including Russia, France, Greece, the United States, and numerous other countries.  Asking a series of about five questions to the respective interviewees, the SUSTech students reported back with positive results, meeting people such as a Ukrainian filmmaker, a Uruguayan professor, and a Dutch researcher.  In many cases, the “interviews” turned into conversations, with dialogue flowing in each direction, adding deeper substance to the prescribed questions.

Interview Selfie

Part of my role as a foreign teacher within a Chinese educational context is not merely to espouse the importance of second language learning, but to similarly share the cultural aspects which encompass language.  Through activities such as this field trip, students and staff alike learned not only communicative skillsets associated with conversation, but moreover through the dialogues, they learned about cultural aspects associated with South American and European countries and the complexities which affect their realities living and working in China.  Not only were the student’s language skills enhanced through the “Foreigner Interview Project” but more importantly, their worldviews were expanded as well.

Book Club: “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”

This Spring Semester the Staff English Class began a Book Club, reading Peter Hessler’s “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”.  Meeting every other Thursday during lunch, our group consists of SUSTech Staff members who enjoy English literature, and who value the notion of constructive dialogue as it applies to both cultural and educational frameworks.  The Book Club consists of 17 students as well as myself, acting as a facilitator, reading three chapters (about 100 pages) every two weeks, coming prepared with issues which we both agree and disagree with, along with questions and concerns about the writing.  As active and engaged readers, the Staff Students take notes during their readings, highlighting and underlining important passages which speak to their own experiences.  Challenging ideas while understanding context allows for the discussion of different viewpoints, learning that when combined, our individual realities form a cohesive bond.

Book Club Discussion

River Town follows the path of Peter Hessler from 1996-1998 while he was a Peace Corps. Volunteer at Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province.  Much like my own current set of circumstances in 2017 Shenzhen, he taught English and culture in a university setting, writing about many of the challenges and opportunities which I too encounter on a daily basis.  For our Staff English Class, this seemed like an ideal book to study, as even though it describes events from 20 years ago, in a number of respects, it mirrors the complexities which both myself as well as my students face in modern day China.  Development may improve infrastructure and access to foreign capital but cultures change less rapidly, providing learning opportunities to explore our differences in opinions.  Whether along the Yangtze River or the South China Sea, there is no right answer, rather a combination of ideas which encourage discussion and ultimately lead to compromise.  Literature reflecting life!

To underscore our understanding of the book, I reached out to the author to see if he would be interested in speaking with us directly about his experiences in China, discussing with our Book Club via videoconference.  Peter Hessler still writes, most notably for The New Yorker, and his articles continue to delve past the surface limitations of image and into the greater depth of substance.  To our delight, he agreed to set up a time to talk with us, allowing a refined definition of the words we are reading, told by the author some 20 years later.  It is these expanded opportunities for learning – stretching beyond language into culture – which emphasizes the true nature of global education.

The SUSTech English Book Club is another example of the creative ideas for learning which are being fostered by those who understand the value of authentic educational models.  Twenty years ago, students in Fuling learned new ways of approaching common ideas by being introduced to an American teacher who brought with him a different perspective.  Today, as I work with motivated staff students in Shenzhen, I too am looking for innovative approaches to teaching about English and culture as well.  Reading River Town in our Book Club provides us with such an opportunity, where we reach beyond the traditional classroom, beyond our own circumstances, and beyond time and place, only to arrive at a new understanding painted by differing viewpoints which allows reflection as we continue to move downstream.

Shenzhen Daily Newspaper Article

I have had the opportunity to write for newspapers in Korea, Ethiopia, and now China, getting an article published in The Shenzhen Daily, the only English Newspaper here in South China.  As is usually the case, I wrote about the cross-pollination of culture and education:

“Global Education: Differing Ideas to Common Dreams”

Peering through the morning haze which hovers like a blanket over Shenzhen, I walk through a campus overlooked by neighboring skyscrapers from across the street, seemingly created from scratch within the last week.   These buildings of gleaming glass house companies which are recognized across the world, not only creating products that will be used from Africa to America, but similarly, attracting talented employees from countries on nearly every continent.  Creation through innovation – this approach to business has helped China along the path to prosperity it currently finds itself on, utilizing a local as well as international workforce to create a positive economic and educational environment which tries to benefit everyone involved.

On a daily basis at the university I teach at in Shenzhen, I hear the word “Internationalization” used with frequency, recognizing its importance, trying to emulate these successes in the classrooms which are being demonstrated in the boardrooms.  Foreign professors sharing their expertise with international students who likewise come equipped with different viewpoints are both an integral part of a constructive learning environment.  The world outside of campus is becoming less and less homogeneous, reflecting a changing business climate and it is prudent to prepare students for these realities.  Similarly, the approaches in deliverance of classroom information should also address the non-traditional methods of communication, shying away from conventional lectures and instead embracing cooperative learning models where students lead discussions; as involved in their learning outcomes as they would be in an innovative company which promotes cohesion, not separation.

Geographically, Shenzhen has an innate advantage, as people from all corners of China come here in search of brighter futures, creating a multicultural city of sorts which boasts regional cuisine, distinct dress, and even local music from the varying provinces across the country.  These cultural complexities are what draws others – from outside of China – to Shenzhen, to teach, learn, and work, experiencing both professional and personal development with lessons taking place daily in their offices and on the streets.  These examples of difference should be fostered inside university campuses as well, promoting learning from a variety of backgrounds, exposing students to different ways of thinking while expanding their worldview.

As an American with teaching experience on four different continents, I try to highlight not only Western methodology and pedagogy but furthermore, allow my students virtual access to the other places I have taught.  The internationalization of the classroom underlines the global environment we find ourselves in and likewise helps us to define the role we as individuals play.  Lessons which extend outside of campus, from participation in an American Book Club to a Webinar with African students helps to shape a different approach to common problems.  As a global citizen, I am grateful for my teaching and learning experiences here in Shenzhen, crouched underneath those clouds of haze yet knowing that the bridges built from here extend into that vast beyond where the possibilities are endless.

Matthew Jellick holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and is currently a lecturer at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.

Collaborating Across Cultures – Stories from SUSTech International Scholars

Few of us spend much time thinking about courage, but we know it when we see it – or do we?  It takes a lot of courage to leave everything behind and step into the unknown, but international students and scholars are travelling long distances and investing lots of time and energy in order to start a new life at SUSTech in the heart of Shenzhen, China’s most innovating city. What attracts them to relocate here to study and do research? How are they collaborating with people from other cultures? What are some of their suggestions for SUSTech? We would like to share their stories.

SUSTech’s Meeting International Scholars is a project focused on allowing the varied and unique experiences of studying and doing research at SUSTech be shared through creative methods. The project takes the form of a multimedia approach based on the format the interviewees feel most comfortable with.

This week, we are lucky to have three scholars share their stories that you should not miss! They are Matthew Jellick from the Center for Language Education, Dr. Farhad Pourpanah in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad in the Department of Biology.


“SUSTech is a university where you can find both dynamic innovation and academic prowess”

Matthew Jellick, United States of America

Matthew Jellick used to work in South Korea where he taught for five years. After that, he spent two years on a fellowship in Africa lecturing at universities in Ethiopia.  Now he joins the SUSTech family and teaches in the Center for Language Education (CLE).

With a strong interest in Asian educational culture, Mr. Jellick decided to work for SUSTech because he realized that he wanted to return to an Asian educational context and more importantly, believes that SUSTech is a university where he can find both dynamic innovation and academic prowess.   These ideals can be manifested by SUSTech’s founding spirit of “being innovative, truthful and realistic” coupled with its commitment to the cultivation of innovative talents and the work taking place on innovative centers and projects.

According to Jellick, what attracted him most to SUSTech is the fact that he can gain new perspectives and learn new ways. “SUSTech offered me a chance to develop both professionally and personally – teaching while learning,” he said in an interview.

With a Master’s Degree in Teaching from the University of Southern California, Mr. Jellick feels fulfilled within the CLE since he can work with both Chinese and foreign teachers. They come from different countries, but work together towards the same goal – to teach and improve the English attainment of the students and faculty of SUSTech.

Although Jellick is a foreigner and a newcomer to the university, he doesn’t feel out of place, rather, SUSTech makes him feel at home. “SUSTech is a group of researchers, educators and learners which defines the school, making it feel like more of a community as opposed to a campus.” he said, adding that the staff he teaches, including librarians, laboratory assistants, secretaries and administrators are friendly and helpful, making him feel that he is a member of a big family. With a competitive salary package, generous start-up funding and modern teaching facilities, SUSTech is truly a place where the faculty can realize their dreams.

Mr. Jellick thinks that SUSTech is similar to Shenzhen itself in many ways for their respect and tolerance for different people and cultures. “It is our differences which attracts us, complex worldviews coming together to be shared in a constructive classroom environment, mirroring in a lot of ways the realities in the city of Shenzhen itself,” said Jellick.

As much as he enjoys his work and life at SUSTech, he misses the U.S. for its multiculturalism because he believes “diversity brings about beauty in the compound mixtures of food, language and beliefs”. However, his homesickness can be relieved a bit in Shenzhen, a city where he can experience different cultures from all parts of China including regional cuisines, variations on dialect and even differing forms of attire.

As a lecturer at SUSTech, Mr. Jellick keeps innovating and pushing himself out of his comfort zone by offering his students (SUSTech Staff) opportunities which stretch beyond the classroom. Apart from teaching, he also runs an English Book Club, acts as advisor to the English Speaking Club and even has taken the Staff out for an English-movie day at the theatre. With continued plans to expand his students’ worldview, he is working on collaborations with colleagues in Africa and the U.S. to do educational webinars, shortening the distance between classrooms and cultures, sharing with each other and learning new perspectives.

He never stops writing too. In his spare time, he writes for the New York Times, Shenzhen Daily, and the USC Chinese Institute’s US-China Today. Being a life-long learner, he keeps doing things which help him develop both professionally and personally.

Having had been teaching and living abroad for almost ten years with educational experiences on six different continents, Mr. Jellick gained an ability to communicate effectively within diverse cultural groups. To him, language comprises a small part of culture, as it also incorporates foods, clothing and even music. Therefore he understands more than anyone else that each respective culture has its own positive values. “There is no one single prominent culture, rather, we are a community of global citizens which should work together to share ideas,” he said.

At SUSTech where different cultures co-exist, Jellick has started to adjust himself to the environment by valuing everyone’s opinion, regardless of their social status.

“SUSTech also offers an opportunity to meet well-known professors from all over the world”

Dr. Farhad Pourpanah, Iran

SUSTech also offers an opportunity to meet well-known professors from all over the world, which is the reason why Dr. Pourpanah decided to work here four months ago. Before coming to SUSTech, he worked at Malaysia Science and Technology University.

Dr. Pourpanah was attracted to the clean environment and comfortable campus life of SUSTech, but he also found English a barrier to communicating with others.

Having no family in Shenzhen, he misses them and the food of his country the most.

Different from the universities where he used to work, SUSTech offers access to more data bases and a chance to work with well-known professors, which Dr. Pourpanah considers a big advantage of SUSTech.

In his opinion, China now is a country famous for high-tech technology and industrial zones, which is why people from all over the world come here.

But it is difficult for them to communicate with Chinese people because of language.

Having been abroad for eight years, he respects each country’s culture. However, it is difficult for him to adapt to Chinese culture since he has just arrived, but he looks forward to learning more about Chinese culture.

SUSTech is a fast-growing body with international collaborations.”

Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad, Pakistan

Dr. Ahmad feels lucky to become a part of the SUSTech community, having come to be a Postdoc in the Department of Biology last summer.

He is attracted by the multi-cultural and academic environment of SUSTech.

“Among Chinese universities, SUSTech has a uniqueness for its architectural beauty and academic standards. It is a fast growing body with international collaborations. The research environment is highly professional and scientific which is a great sign for academic development,” said Dr. Ahmad.

Besides, he likes SUSTech because it is young and dynamic. But as a Postdoc, he cares about the research environment the most and SUSTech didn’t fail him. SUSTech has always committed to building itself into a high-level research public university where research funds and investments are valued the most. In the future, the university plans to complete the construction of about 20 research centers by 2020 with two to three built every year, forming a high-level basic research and applied basic research platform.

When Dr. Ahmad first came to the campus, he was amazed at its cleanliness, friendliness and particularly by its environmentally friendly regulations. “I guess very few universities have a no smoking policy on campus,” he said. He is also happy to see that the recreational facilities such as a sports complex are well maintained and easily accessible.

Although most people in SUSTech can speak English fluently, Dr. Ahmad still finds it a pity that he cannot speak Chinese. “I think that not knowing Chinese language sometimes limits my exposure,” he said.

However, with the state-of-art facilities and equipment of SUSTech, the results of his research can be guaranteed. This is also one of the biggest differences between SUSTech and the universities in Pakistan. Besides, the quality and skills of the students and staff also left a deep impression on Dr. Ahmad. Most importantly, he thanked the SUSTech Education Foundation for offering funds not only for research but also for human development, which is one of the reasons why he works here.

On a national level, China and Pakistan are good partners. To Ahmad, Chinese people are friendly and supportive. He attributes the strength of China to Chinese people’s diligence, which is a good quality in his eyes.

Now being in a different country, Dr. Ahmad is dealing with the transition quite well since he understands that people from different cultures can live and work harmoniously in the globalized world. “It is a general perception that India and Pakistan are not friendly but I have met several Indian friends who for me are just like any Pakistani friends,” he said.

At SUSTech, he feels a sense of belonging and thinks working with people from different cultures helps him become more tolerant and moderate about his ideas. Even when he celebrated his own country’s festivals, other SUSTech families joined him and they all shared the joy, which he believes is a delightful experience of respect.