Last July, 19-year-old Chrissy Shaw, a marketing major, went to class during the day, partied at night and took occasional weekend trips. Grant Gilreath, a 21-year-old global studies major, said he spent most of his free time playing sports and hanging out with other students.
Pretty typical summer, right? Not quite.
Gilreath and Shaw were two of 18 UT students in Beijing, China teaching conversational English to freshmen at Tsinghua University. Teaching styles varied, as it was left up to the instructor to decide on how to teach conversational English.
“What we taught was really flexible. I took a vote on what the students wanted to talk about,” Gilreath said. “They liked U.S. history and presidents. We talked about movies a lot too. Star Wars, Forrest Gump, just a bunch of major movies.”
Shaw said she hardly remembers what she taught.
“It was really just like sitting around talking to other students. The goal was to engage them and get them speaking English.”
Shaw and Gilreath also did lots of singing and dancing.
“The students loved pop music,” Gilreath said. “They loved Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, and they would make up skits or rewrite the lyrics to those songs for classes. In the early 90’s Hulk Hogan made a rap song, and my students ate it up. They loved Hulk Hogan. So for a singing competition, my class sang the chorus, and this one skinny kind-of-bald Chinese kid came out flexing his muscles and did the rap. It was a highlight of the trip.”
Shaw and Gilreath said the Chinese students made all the singing and dancing and teaching easy on them.
“At home, you sit through class and give dirty looks to the kids who speak up in class,” Gilreath said. “But the students were so enthusiastic. Everyone wanted to answer questions and ask questions.”
Gilreath and Shaw agreed that the Chinese students just had a different attitude toward school than Americans. Gilreath said that students were often expected to study 12 hours a day six days a week, and Shaw said she was awed by their focus. Their high work ethic develops from a cultural emphasis put on education, said Kurt Butefish, a program coordinator in geography and a faculty member on the trip.
“They and their parents make unbelievable sacrifices to ensure success. The pressure on these kids is enormous. They don’t get second or third chances like many American college students. The Chinese culture has great respect for educators and the educational system,” Butefish said.
But the intense academic load leaves little time for anything else. Gilreath and Shaw said that the students were innocent and a little naïve in social situations.
Shaw said that when they talked about dating in class her students would start giggling.
“I’d ask the class what they did on the weekend, and lots of them said they just played video games,” Gilreath said.
After teaching four classes during the day, Shaw and Gilreath had the nights and weekends free to roam China.
Shaw said she used her weekends to check out the major tourist sites in China: the Imperial Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall.
“One of the coolest things we saw was the Wall in a section where tourists don’t visit. It hadn’t been restored, so it gave you a better idea what it really looks like.”
She said she also checked out the nightlife.
“It was pretty awesome. We went everywhere from the upscale expensive clubs that target Westerners to just local Chinese bars. And it’s no different than here. As long as you’re smart, you’ll be fine. I never felt like I wasn’t safe.”
Gilreath took a different approach to his three-week stay.
“I was on a mini-term trip in China earlier in the summer so I’d already seen all the sites. Instead of going on weekend trips and going out at night, I hung out with my students.
“When they’re not playing Street Fighter, they love to play sports. We played just about everything. Basketball, ping pong, soccer, you name it. It was during the World Cup and the games came on around midnight usually, so we watched lots of soccer. And you knew when there had been some good games when half the students didn’t show up for the first class.”
Gilreath and Shaw agreed that if you’re flexible and willing to embarrass yourself, then it’s a fun and inexpensive way to experience China.
“It was a great opportunity, and an amazing summer. I had a great time. I forget my teachers as soon as the semester is over, but I still get e-mails from the students I taught,” Shaw said.
The Programs Abroad Office is currently accepting applications from interested faculty, staff and students for the camp at Tsinghua University this summer, tentatively scheduled for July 5 to 27. Application deadlines are in February and informational meetings about the program will be held throughout the next couple weeks.
For more information, visit