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Greene: Small World

People might be surprised at how many Vermont households are busy making Chinese dumplings to celebrate the Year of the Monkey, which begins Monday the 8th. But when you consider the number and scope of Asian exchange programs the Freemen Foundation has funded, it makes a little more sense.

Eight years ago, our younger son went to China and Inner Mongolia with the Journey East exchange program out of Leland and Gray Union High School, in Townshend, then funded by the Freeman Foundation. As a freshman, he spent the first semester of the program learning Chinese history, culture and language, and practicing the performances the group would give as they toured China.

Exchange students’ families also got to host students and faculty from the Art College of Inner Mongolia University, where our kids would spend two weeks in residence. Our guests were adorable. Though their English was spotty and our Chinese nonexistent, we made dumplings together, and got pretty good at it.

But thirty years ago, no Vermont high school taught much about Asia. So in the late 1980’s, the Freeman Foundation sponsored its first group of school administrators to travel to China. That trip inspired exchange programs throughout the state: Journey East at Leland and Gray, exchange programs in other VT high schools, The Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Asian program, Vermont Intercultural Semester and School Year Abroad, to name just a few. More than 250 local students have taken part in Journey East, and many of them have gone on to international study, says Tom Connor, one of the founders of the Leland and Gray program.

One such student is Callie Sopper, who went on Journey East in 2004. The trip inspired her to spend her senior year of high school in Beijing, which she did through the School Year Abroad program based at Phillips Andover Academy. She studied anthropology in college, and after several more trips to China, Sopper now works in the Global Programs department at Boston University, on initiatives designed to foster the academic and emotional well-being of international students.

Though the funding has been transferred to local sources, Leland and Gray still runs Journey East. Ten percent of the student population take Chinese language and culture. In fact, Leland and Gray has the first and only AP classes in Chinese language and culture, according to Tong Chen, who teaches these courses.

The Vermont of my youth was landlocked and provincial. We still lack a seacoast, but we are provincial no more.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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