U.S.-China Bridge Builders

Student Leaders in Action

By Yi Zheng

Despite growing ties between the U.S. and China, there are still misunderstandings and mistrust between these two nations. Student leaders can help to bridge that gap through engaging and kindling their communities’ interest and curiosity about China.

I interviewed four high school students from Saint Ann’s School in New York and Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn (a member of the Asia Society Confucius Classrooms Network), to learn how these students see themselves playing the role of student leaders, and their aspirations as U.S.-China bridge-builders. These students are Project Pengyou Leadership Fellows and were trained in cross-cultural leadership and community organizing strategies for building constructive U.S.-China engagement in their respective communities.

The dynamic trio of Anya Dunaif, Alexandra Epstein, and Natalie Nargorski at Saint Ann’s School worked collaboratively to establish a Saint Ann’s Project Pengyou Chapter, in order to expand cultural awareness of China in their school and their community.

Alexandra speaks the minds of many students when she says, “The notion of ‘bridge building’ between two of the world’s greatest nations can seem daunting, especially to students on high school or college campuses.”

But that does not stop them from pursuing their shared passions. Anya realizes that “even as high school students, we have important roles to play in U.S.-China relations.” These students are doing their part to promote positive Sino-American relationships in their school and community, because, as Alexandra puts it, “China can seem foreign and inaccessible to students living in the United States; thus, to be a leader and bridge-builder between China and the U.S., one must organize events and opportunities at home that allow others to experience and understand China on a deeper level.”

The three seniors planned to engage their entire school community and students of all ages on National Pengyou Day, around a celebration of Chinese language and culture. Using the tools and knowledge they gained at the Harvard Project Pengyou Leaders Summit Training, they utilized resources to host a dumpling-making event, and organized opportunities for high school students to teach Mandarin lessons and explain the origins of simple Chinese characters to those in preschool and lower school. Natalie hopes that, through their efforts, she will address the problem of student and faculty dismissal of Chinese culture. “I have often heard my peers exchange micro-aggressive comments about Asian culture—comments that have no place in a positive learning environment,” she says. They hope to inspire more students to study Mandarin, to travel to China, and to explore Chinese history, art, and literature, because they believe that the more Saint Ann’s students engage in personal exchange with people from diverse backgrounds, the more accepting the school atmosphere will become.

The trio also has big plans for their neighborhood and community. For instance, they plan to host regional Project Pengyou events in partnership with the chapters at New York University, Montclair Kimberley Academy, Burlington County College, and Medgar Evers College Preparatory High School. One of these activities that Anya aims to organize is a Chinese film festival that she has been working on over the past year. She hopes to “increase intercultural understanding through the film festival for students in New York City and the Tri-State Area . . . because film, like music and visual art, has the ability to connect people despite perceived differences.” Natalie sees these school collaborations as an opportunity to build relationships and learn from other high school students in New York City. She notes, “One of my closest friends from the Project Pengyou leadership summit also goes to a school in Brooklyn, but has had an utterly different set of experiences in the borough.”

Anya, Alexandra, and Natalie are all seniors at Saint Ann’s, and in order to ensure that their work continues after they graduate, they will train committed juniors and sophomores on their leadership team on the necessary skills and tools so they can continue to develop Saint Ann’s chapter and empower younger students to take on leadership roles. When asked about their own plans after high school, Anya hopes to found a Project Pengyou chapter in the college that she will attend (if one does not already exist), and to expand her film festival. Natalie hopes to take a gap year to study abroad in China, and use her newly acquired experiences in China to further promote positive U.S.-China relations in college.

While the trio at Saint Ann’s works collaboratively to expand cultural awareness, Ymara Magloire from Medgar Evers College Preparatory School also shared her goals for the celebration of Project Pengyou Day. Ymara planned to share information she learned about U.S.-China relations from the Project Pengyou Leadership Fellowship Summit at Harvard with her school community, and utilize her school resources to engage middle school classes to perform Chinese songs and dances. She would also like to give thanks to her Chinese language teachers for their hard work and dedication. Ymara hopes that through this effort, more students will be interested in studying Mandarin, and will apply for study abroad programs. She encountered certain challenges through her planning. She reflects, “It was hard to develop ideas that would not only be fun and creative, but also informative.” However, these difficulties did not stop Ymara from her goal because she realizes she is not alone in this process. This is very evident when she defines what leadership means to her: “As leaders we are to ask ourselves: Who are my people, what is our challenge, and how can we most effectively use the resources we have to achieve our goals? We build relationships with others who share a common purpose, who share this common purpose through narrative, take effective action, and structure leadership collaboratively.”

Each of these high school students is doing their own part as a U.S.-China bridge-builder, and they have advice for other students who share similar passion for studying Chinese language and culture. Anya encourages students to take advantage of every opportunity available, because doing so can lead them to incredible places and allow students to meet people who will both relate to and support them. Natalie advises that one way to fuel students’ passion for Sino-American relations is to stay in touch with current events. She recommends, “The New York Times and the China Daily are two excellent sources of international news coverage.” Ymara wants to remind other students that learning Chinese can open up endless possibilities.

See how students around the country celebrated National Pengyou Day on November 20, 2014: projectpengyou.org/pengyouday