Education students gain global perspective during study abroad trips

by the College of Education at Illinois   /   Jan 22, 2016

Education at Illinois students in Hong Kong

Allison Witt, director of the Office of International Programs, can’t help but feel excited about the current state of the program she leads in the College of Education. She related the reasons why:

  • Increased future overseas opportunities are on the docket, including an upcoming visits to Lyon and Paris in France

  • $500 scholarships are available for every Education student who wants to study abroad  

  • A new class in the College prepares students to live and learn in foreign countries and thoroughly integrate the experience into their future classrooms upon return

  • International expertise is abundant in the College through programs such as Global Studies in Education

“Our goal is to really be a leader in this realm, and I think we’re uniquely poised to do it. This campus attracts so many international students and is a leader in study abroad in all disciplines. We also have a topnotch library to do research with experts from regions around the world. The campus Area Studies Centers provide even more additional resources,” Witt said.

Expanding horizons and connections in Hong Kong

During winter break, Stephanie Sanders-Smith, the Yew Chung – Bernard Spodek Scholar and assistant professor in early childhood education, traveled with 11 Education students to Hong Kong, where they visited numerous classrooms in Yew Chung International School (YCIS), The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the French International School of Hong Kong, and Tai Po Old Market Public School.

The group also made visits to the University of Macau, Fanling Kau Yan College, the beautiful Victoria Peak, and saw Big Buddha.  

Sanders-Smith, who mostly observed a fourth-grade English class, said the programs in YCIS are a blend of Eastern and Western language and culture. During the two-week stay, she met with Dr. Betty Chan, who did doctoral work in the College and was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters in 2010 by the University of Illinois, in recognition of her outstanding work and research in education.

Chan’s mother, Madam Tsang Chor-hang, founded the first YCIS in 1932. Chan has since developed YCIS into one of the leading private school systems in Hong Kong and is the director and supervisor of the school.

Sanders-Smith interacted with English language teachers at CUHK, where Alvin Leung, M.S. ’82 Ed.Psych., Ph.D. ’88 Ed. Psych., is the dean of the Faculty of Education. She was informed there that Hong Kong is moving away from the drilling model of language teaching in an effort to teach authentic English language experiences that encourage collaboration.

According to Sanders-Smith, the trip to Hong Kong, which ranks highly worldwide in education, revealed to UI students how the country’s culture drives school achievement but may not stimulate creative thinking and the ability to apply knowledge, areas in which U.S. schools excel.

Witt said such observations are precisely the reason overseas experiences in classrooms are so crucial to future teachers, who can use their time abroad as a way to creatively view problems and situations in different contexts.

“To get into a completely different culture such as Hong Kong, which is coming from such a different place, and to see and learn how that country thrives and perhaps doesn’t thrive in various realms of education, and to see what the assumptions and polices are and how they interpret things is all vital information for a future teacher looking to understand teaching elements in a more global context.” Witt said.

She continued: “For instance, how are they dealing with issues we consider problems like many native languages in classrooms? How do they handle these challenges and what are their solutions? How might other school systems make strengths out of issues we consider problems?”

Wei Liu, global education specialist in the College, joined Sanders-Smith and the Education students in Hong Kong. Along with chaperoning duties, Liu helped Sanders-Smith arrange and set up an alumni reception for Education graduates living in Hong Kong. University of Illinois kinesiology students, who also were studying abroad in Hong Kong, joined the festivities in The Upper House.

Chan and Leung both spoke at the reception, and Liu said Education students enjoyed mingling with prominent Illinois alumni, including LAS graduate Sophie Y.F. Leung, an honorary consul member for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg Consulate in Hong Kong.

“They did a really good job hosting the event,” Liu said. “They introduced themselves and were very engaged in conversation throughout the evening.”

Witt said teachers simply love to chat with other teachers and enjoy learning from one another, no matter where they live or what stage of their career they’re at.

“There are a lot of alumni out there doing exciting things in places where we’re going,” she said. “Our students can learn from our alumni and vice versa.”

Though Witt sees the value of overseas learning for university students in all disciplines, she feels those in Education particularly benefit from learning abroad and meeting graduates who are well established or possibly at their professional peak.

“These students are going to be teachers,” Witt said. “The lessons they bring back are going to multiply and multiply and multiply because of their time overseas. The impact is forever.”