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On being an algebra ambassador

  • By Dr. Mark E. Williams

    Tuesday, August 22, 2017
    Mark Williams @ the Great Wall of China

    Delaware State University invited me to participate this past summer in its “3+1” academic exchange program with the Changchun University of Science and Technology. Located in northeast China near the North Korean border, the city of Changchun is heavily industrialized, about the size of Chicago and home to China's auto industry. 

    New buildings are being erected everywhere. Changchun is quite modern as it was only founded approximately 200 years ago. The university draws its 20,000+ students from across China. 

    This was my first visit to China. In graduate school, I had Chinese friends from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic. I like and can cook Chinese food. I knew China on a map resembles the shape of a rooster, and that it is one of the few remaining Communist nations with a population of 1.4 billion people. Beyond that, I knew little about China. 

    After agreeing to teach math for eight weeks, I traveled in the spring to Philadelphia to obtain a passport. The exchange trip organizer, Dr. Fengshan Liu, helped me acquire a visa, which I received in early May. My round-trip ticket would take me from Washington to Beijing and then a feeder flight to Changchun. 

    Final exams for UMES' spring (2017) semester left little time before my departing flight. My last final exam was given Saturday, May 20, graded and entered in the system. Dr. Albert Chi, a math department colleague, gave me a ride to the Dulles airport, where I left for China the afternoon of May 21. 

    The eastbound flight took 13 hours and 50 minutes, literally half way around the world. Beijing and Changchun are a 12-hour time difference from Princess Anne. Jet lag took about a week to overcome. I arrived in Changchun the morning of Tuesday, May 23, and had just one day to sort out accommodations, class schedules, meet the other six faculty members who had arrived earlier, and other minor tasks. 

    I taught two sections of linear algebra. One had 42 students, the other 47. Classes were 90 minutes with a 5-minute break. Unair-conditioned classrooms utilized (old-school) chalk boards, rudimentary desks and little else. Students had been exposed to English and we had some interesting times between their pronunciation of words and my American vocabulary. 

    I found the Chinese students highly motivated. Unlike the United States, it is rare for a Chinese student to change schools. That's not to say no students failed, but the number was far lower than I am used to. I found students respectful. I had a teaching associate, who helped with grading, and a “life assistant,” who helped with everyday life problems. 

    (China does have Walmarts, which I would visit weekly during my stay to purchase American comfort food - snacks.) 

    When classes were over and final exams graded, the American faculty departed Changchun. We were feted by a dinner with senior university administrators. My ability to use chop sticks is now much improved, although I did not need them to eat watermelon each morning during my stay. 

    Students gave us gifts of many different types. One of my best students told me she finally figured out my American humor, and was disappointed I was leaving. 

    Four of us took a high-speed train to Beijing, enabling us to see some of the countryside. I did tourist type things for two days - visiting an artist colony in Beijing and climbing / walking on a portion of the 3,000-mile long Great Wall on a windless 95-degree day. 

    The biggest challenge was fitting everything into my suitcase without exceeding the weight limit. Then, a 14-hour flight back to America. 

    Foreign travel is better experienced over the long term. I came away from my eight-week visit with a feeling for China I would not have had as a short-time tourist. 

    When the students I taught this past summer arrive for their year at Delaware State, I plan to travel to Dover to see them and show them the same hospitality they showed me. 

    I was pleased by and grateful for the opportunity to go to China. I hope to go back next year, renew friendships and make new ones.

    Dr. Mark Williams is an associate professor in UMES' Department of Mathematics and Computer ScienceHe is also an alumnus of the U.S. Peace Corps program.