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Professor Hiller Spires Helps Students Cultivate Relationships on 1st Study Abroad Trip to China

Dr. Hiller Spires took 11 NC State students to three cities in China as part of a study abroad course in May.

Hiller Spires, Ph.D., Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Literacy Education at the NC State College of Education, has been to China more than a dozen times. But she was able to get a new perspective on the country this spring.

Spires led her first study abroad course in May, taking 11 students to three cities for “Exploring Culture and Education in China.” The students spent two weeks visiting Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing, embracing the local culture and observing and co-teaching lessons.

“To be able to see so many of these cultural sites and the relationships with the Chinese educators through the NC State students’ eyes was very refreshing and rewarding. In some ways it was like experiencing China for the first time,” Spires said. “Traveling to another country is always mind expanding. China, with its high context culture, always offers something new.”

The students visited two Chinese schools Spires has built strong relationships with over the past decade. In 2010, she created a partnership with the Beijing Royal School, which has welcomed student teachers from NC State and sent 24 of their own teachers to the College of Education to receive their master’s of education degree through the New Literacies and Global Learning Program. In 2013, she helped create the Suzhou North American High School, which named her an honorary principal in 2017. 

“I leveraged our existing partnerships to create meaningful experiences for the students. Having established relationships with Chinese educators provided a richer context for our students to explore and understand the culture — the interactions were quite powerful,” Spires said.

Each of the 11 students who participated in the study abroad program had the opportunity to partner with teachers at both the Beijing Royal School and Suzhou North American High School to develop and teach a lesson that covered either a core subject or an element of western culture. The topics chosen by students varied broadly, including the rules and history of basketball, mathematics concepts, the psychology of music and even a lesson on the British rock band Queen.

During the trip, NC State students were also able to meet with the 24 Chinese College of Education alumni who have now taken on leadership positions at the Beijing Royal School. It was the first opportunity in several years for Spires to see the group who she said helped transform the school by introducing innovative pedagogies into what was once a traditional Chinese curriculum.

“I really can’t imagine a better context for creating cross-cultural understandings and knowledge — NC State Wolfpack pride was pervasive,” she said.

In addition to cultivating relationships with students and teachers in China, the study abroad students were able to take an in-depth look at Chinese culture. Among their many cultural excursions during their two weeks abroad, students were able to experience the Great Wall of China, a Buddhist temple, the Forbidden City and Palace Museum as well as participate in a traditional tea ceremony.

“What made these excursions special was the fact that our educational partners accompanied us, providing in-depth historical and cultural perspectives that we otherwise would not have been privy to,” Spires said.

Spires said she views the trip to China as a means to creating global understanding, and she was impressed by how inquisitive the students were and open to forming relationships with the Chinese educators and students. Perhaps most importantly, the trip provided students with a new perspective to bring back to their educational experience at NC State as well as their future careers.

“I think being able to study abroad is invaluable as an educator. Our students will be able to take their experiences into the classroom because they know how it feels to be in a totally different culture,” she said. “As a teacher in a classroom with students from different cultures, you have to understand how to relate to them and create space for their cultures and perspectives to be an integral part of the learning process.”

In addition to her ongoing partnerships with the Beijing Royal School and Suzhou North American High School, Spires said she hopes to continue cultivating relationships by bringing a new group of students to China in 2021.

She believes that the mutually beneficial partnerships with Chinese educators, who invest significant resources into education, can ultimately “add to the ripple effect of helping make the world a better place” through greater cultural understanding and exchange of ideas.

“At the end of the day, U.S. and Chinese educators have similar goals and aspirations: we all want what is best for our students, including a peaceful world,” she said.