This past month has literally been a whirlwind because I was given the opportunity to switch gears from my marketing responsibilities to teaching. Two camps, 1 month—it’s been hard work, but it’s all been worth it. Why? My kids.
Me at work everyday…
I spent 5+ hours everyday reading essays, making improvements and suggestions. I became more than just a college applications mentor, I became a coach, cheerleader, counselor, motivational speaker, lecturer, yoga instructor, DJ, etc. You name it; I did it! I wore so many caps over the course of the camp, each time adapting to new situations.
Speaking of adaptation, I’m trying to cope with life post-camp. I’m literally having withdrawals, which is crazy because I didn’t think that I would be this attached to my mentees.
Me Waking Up Realizing I’m Not At Camp Anymore
After the Chengdu camp, I was very skeptical about how I would feel about my mentees in Guangzhou. I was like a mother giving birth for the second time. Second time moms always worry that they won’t be able to love their second child as much as their first, feeling as if their heart is already full. However, after giving birth, they quickly learn that their heart grows so that they’re able to love both children equally. Like them, my love for my first mentees didn’t falter or diminish after I bonded with my new ones—my heart simply grew to accommodate more love.
More Room For Love
I’m so very blessed and grateful to have been able to bond with so many people over the course of my internship. Whether that’s other interns, office workers, other students, school staff, or even strangers—I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow in so many ways. So to everyone, thank you. To my fellow interns, thank you for being amazing companions on this journey through China. To the office workers in Chengdu and Shanghai, thank you for showing me the ropes. To the other students, especially Betsy, I met in Guangzhou, thank you for kindness. To Vernon and Ting (school staff), you guys are family. Thanks for helping me re-learn how to ride a bike; I’ll never forget riding through the streets of Guangzhou late at night. To the strangers who took pictures of me and even let me hold their baby, thank you for making me feel like a superstar.
Whenever I think about the people I’ve met here :)
Finally, I would like to thank my mentees. You all literally made everything worth it. Thank you for bringing so much joy in my life. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for giving me life advice and reminding me that I’m still growing. Thank you for challenging me to be better mentor. Thank you for your honesty and your questions. Thank you for trusting me enough to let me in. Simply put, thank you for being yourselves.
Alexis is a senior at Harvard University. Her passions include raising awareness about human trafficking, women’s issues, and gender equality. When she is not emulating Olivia Pope, Alexis revels in watching Netflix and taking insanely long naps.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen this summer, but this probably wasn’t it. I spent a lot of time working on things that weren’t what I anticipated. It was pretty early on when we realized that our initial framework wasn’t going to work and from there we had to build something from the ground up. There were all sorts of things we didn’t know were going to be problems, which any experienced web developer could have told us within minutes.
Just to name a few… browser compatibility, router limits, web pages timing out when there was too much going on in the background, students being confused about the instructions we were giving, and the constant possibility of a user messing something up in new and exciting ways.
Specific to myself, there were some pretty poor database relations that cost us a lot of time. I made some pretty major errors in the backend. Initially, we thought things were going to be loading very slowly because we were unaware of how SQL queries in the website worked. In an attempt to save time, I wrote a very suboptimal for-loop that tried to be all encompassing and ended up masking a lot of other problems that should have come out during testing.
Still though, we live and we learn. And believe me, I did learn a lot. I picked up a lot of front end web-development. I knew absolutely nothing about HTML, CSS, or PHP before this summer. I managed to get PHP working with SQL pretty well, to the point where I felt comfortable handling database queries and displaying them on the website.
I learned a lot about how databases work on an industrial scale. For instancing, backing things up is very important. It’s important to have working copies of everything so you can do version control if need be. Also, it’s nice to have multiple servers so if you need to do maintenance on one of them, your website will still function under the miracle of Amazon AWS. At the end of all this, I’d like to think I helped build something a little bigger than I am.
Benjamin is a Junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying physics and mechanical engineering. Going by the nickname "Jiang", he is passionate about coding, computer games, and reading manga. An adventurous eater, he is most excited for the food!
As a member of the Test Prep team for the ThinkBIG summer camps, I tracked my students’ progress through numbers. How many points did they increase per section? Which concept did they score the highest? What concept was their lowest score from? From the students’ and parents’ point of view, numbers are what they cared about the most. Numbers and scores were what they were trained to look at.
As a computer science major, I love numbers and data! But during this camp, I designed the curriculum to be more focused on the human aspect of teaching, because that was what my students needed the most. To advance in writing and analyzing texts, students must have reasoning skills that stem from their own experiences and knowledge. I didn’t just feed them with practice problems. Rather, I encouraged them to self-reflect and draw connections from readings to their own lives. To be honest, the students had trouble with this at first, since it seemed as if they could not find anything about themselves to talk about. There were both a language barrier and inexperience in self-reflecting that caused this.
My favorite part of teaching at the camps was watching the students improve not only their test scores, but also their ability to find interests and passion from their past experiences. The students became more comfortable to share their ideas and opinions during discussion. I particularly enjoyed reading about my student’s backgrounds and stories from their daily journal entries, which both improved their writing and critical thinking skills. The following are my favorite lines from the journal entries:
1. “My mother used to tell me that I was from the rubbish can, but I think that I am okay with that. That means my friends are from the rubbish can too.”
2. “Autumn is the season to say goodbye and to say hello.”
3. “When I was a child, I had thought about how I could fly like a bird…I collected feathers…pasted them on my sleeves…climbed onto a tree a jumped. Of course, I fell onto the ground and cried because of the pain of my ass. My mom asked me why I did that, and I still don’t know why.”
4. “My friend was an extremely optimistic person, and I really admire that. He is the reason that I smile more, because he taught me to live life happily.”
5. “I had a scar on my head that I used to hide, because it made me look different. Eventually, my mother taught me that it was one’s actions that made people like him or her, not their outward appearances.”
Some of the essays made me giggle. Some of the essays made me think about myself. All of essays were windows to the students that allowed me to understand them better. I will remember the students by their unique and creative thoughts, rather than their test scores.
Erica is an MIT student studying computer science. She is passionate about increasing interest in STEM fields through outreach programs and empowering women using education . She also loves to dance, run, and try new foods.
It’s been one hell of a month. Both literally, and figuratively. Yet: in spite of the sweat, the tears (students, not mine), the narrowly-avoided disasters, camp was an incredibly rewarding experience. Sure, there were many things to complain about—and I did. But, at the end of every day, trudging back to the dorm at midnight, there was always a distinct feeling of accomplishment. Those hours of begging the printer to un-jam, of squinting and transposing Excel sheets, of painstakingly tabbing to format passages—they culminated in tangible results. There was no better feeling than seeing a student really get it, than knowing that I had really taught something.
I came into this summer hoping to get some teaching experience and came out with a bit more than that.. This was not what I expected. I had entertained delusions of perfect students, flawlessly executed lesson plans, smooth sailing to 2400s—camp had none of the above. Instead, it taught me the importance of patience, individualized attention, and most of all, flexibility. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with micromanaging and relinquishing control. Camp has above all taught me to be (at least a little more) okay with unpredictability and chaos.
I’ve learned a lot—else statements don’t exist in Excel, terracotta figurines are a bit more fragile than you’d expect (especially in the neck area), and it is hard to deal with incompetence. I’ve met some semi-cool people, made some semi-cool friends, and done some semi-cool things (when else would I ever get to use a bow-and-arrow, or watch my boss literally cry from laughter, or play badminton in heels?)
Grace is a sophomore at Yale University who plans to major in Applied Math and English. In her free time, she enjoys petting dogs, reading post-modern lit, and picking puns out of rap songs. She is highly proficient in Excel.
Back where it all began: Shanghai. Today, a summer of learning (how to use punctuation), close calls, traveling, and unexpected surprises came to a close. Therefore, I’m writing this as my final blog post. I lived my dream of being a teacher for 2.5 weeks. And, after spending five hours a day chained to a printer, that dream has been lived in all of its mundane glory. Travelling from city to city, I learned quickly that no matter where you go, kids are kids. Boys will be boys; girls will be girls. Other than English ability, which was surprisingly good, there is little differentiation between students across the world. I had exceptionally hard-working, inquisitive kids as well as a handful of slackers. Kids who truly made the most of their time at camp as well as kids who stared blankly into space. Kids who put their heart and soul into each homework assignment I spent hours creating and kids who lost it five seconds after I handed it to them. School is school. Students are students. And, from this experience, I am so thankful for the teachers that I had growing up.
The rest of the internship was a crash course in surviving outside of my comfort zone. Illiterate foreigner in my own homeland. Severely limited in food options due to my picky palate (Nothing from the ocean or with enough spices to kill me). Learning how to communicate with Shanghai girls for the first time. Sorry mom. Making a handful of new friends. Trying every flavor of Lay’s potato chips in Family Mart. The Family Mart snack section in general. Family Mart.
All in all, my time in Shanghai has been filled with experiences, both good and bad, that I never would have had in the United States. I had the freedom to pursue my own projects, structure my own classes, and explore multiple different cities in China at will. I have no regrets looking back on this summer.
Vincent Song is a Junior at Columbia University. In Shanghai, he is most looking forward to exploring the nightlife, as he grew up in a small town in upstate Illinois.
“I don’t know.”
I can’t really count how many times that phrase was uttered. The kids at the summer camp loved this phrase. So many kids, but one common, telling answer.
“Why do you want to be an accountant?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you say music relaxes you? What pressure do you face in the real world?”
“I don’t know.”
As a college application intern, I’ve realised a lot of things about the Chinese education system. I’ve realised that it doesn’t teach critical thinking. I’ve realised that it doesn’t encourage reflection. Students don’t know why or how. Too often, things just are to them.
If I ask someone to tell me a story about their mother, it shouldn’t take them more than a minute or two to find one worth telling. If someone can’t even critically tie together stories about one's own life, how can someone critically identify and assess the availability of culturally-appropriate care in the United States? Reflecting on one’s life only scratches the surface of the critical thinking required in college.
For a while, I was at a loss. Reflection was built into me. It’s subconscious; I couldn’t stop it if I tried. How could I possibly teach students how to think? They just have to think? It defied logic. There were only ten days for the camp, and only five of them were dedicated to personal statements. How could I find a good story, and help them through the process of writing it in just five days? I agonised constantly. I could see how the pieces fit together—why couldn’t they? Possible messages and meanings flitted about, lighting me up with inspiration I dared not share.
After all, I didn’t want to teach them what to think. It was their story, and it wasn’t my right to force my meaning upon them.
Somewhere along the way, though, I realised I have to at least hint at the possibility. I shouldn’t have expected epiphanies. Unlike me, English was not their first language. Unlike for me, reflection wasn’t encouraged and engrained into the very humdrum of the day for them. They needed examples; they needed to understand what I was looking for. I kept asking them questions, and they answered in the only way they knew to. They only knew ‘surface' meanings, because I never explained what ‘deeper meaning’ meant. I was afraid of their imitation, but I forgot that I regularly seek outside ‘inspiration.’ In high school, when teachers assigned essays, I would scour the web, examining and extrapolating from the wealth of information. When I was in distress, I turned to my friends for refuge and direction. I ultimately made my own choices, but I benefited from their opinions.
I may not be able to revolutionize how students think, but I could at least give them a nudge along the path.
And so I did. When I asked Student A why they loved art, I told them why I loved art. I explained, “I was a child who thought ‘I can’t’ because I wasn’t good at this or that and this or that.” I explained, "Art was the one thing that told me: I can.”
Student A nodded, smiled, and told me, “Art was my first friend, and through art, I became.”
When Student B couldn’t reflect, I showed them how I reflect. I asked them to remove the story, and leave only the meaning. I showed them my personal reflection—the one I wrote when I was their age—and asked them to read it. “I’m afraid of death because I’m afraid of nothing,” I had written.
“If I had to choose between being nothing and being someone else, I’d rather be nothing,” he had replied.
When a story is shared, it’s often also reciprocated. When a story resonates, it’s often also reinterpreted. And when the process of reflection begins, it never really ends.
Kelly Luc is a junior at Brown University studying public health and visual arts. Kelly enjoys candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach. In her free time, Kelly can be found shamelessly posting photos of herself on her instagram (@kelchupp).
At long last, I’m days away from returning to California. Over the course of the last two months, I have learned several very important things:
1) There is no cheese in China.
2) There is no salad in China.
3) Convenience stores are lifesavers, but still have no cheese or salad.
4) “Iced coffee” means “vaguely coffee-flavored sugar water”
5) You can get mojitos in to-go cups with a straw. This might be the most significant thing I learned.
In all seriousness, though, I have learned many (actually) important things. In America, boarding schools are for rich kids or problem kids. In China, almost everyone goes to boarding school—which are tightly closed off from the outside world. The students at these schools are taught both what to think and how to think, or so it seems, whereas American ones generally just go for the latter. As a product of California’s eroding public school system, I often complained about the quality (or lack thereof) of my education. However, after seeing the rote memorization and rigid thinking taught here, I’m very grateful for what I had. Several of the students I worked with, although highly intelligent, had never learned how to reflect about themselves or write creatively at all. My schools may not have been perfect, but they did a lot more for me in terms of personal development than I’d thought.
By far the best part of the last couple of months has been the people I’ve met. Just as Stanford provided me the opportunity to work with and connect to people that I never would have talked to otherwise, my internship here has allowed me to befriend fellow students from across the country. Being a Californian has always been a part of my identity, but I didn’t realize just how large a role that played in my life until I became friends with Ivy Leaguers—Stanford may be Ivy-level, but it’s certainly not the same at all in terms of mindset or culture. We opt for Google and Apple over Goldman or B of A, eat non-Chipotle Mexican food on a regular basis, and have a functioning football team (beat U$C).
I’ve spent the last three or four days in Shanghai. Wandering around Shanghai is very different from doing the same in Chengdu, Guangzhou, or even Beijing. No one asks me for photos, let alone takes sniper selfies of me. The variety of global food here is as close to American as it gets here—I’ve even had knockoff In-N-Out in the true spirit of China.
As much as I’ve enjoyed my time here, I’m ecstatic to return to the land of avocados and intellectual freedom. Everything there may be more expensive, yes, but, to me, the independence is completely worth it. Despite the shitshow known as the Republican Primary Debate (still proud of that drinking game), despite the dry California heat, despite my eternal mental health war with Stanford, I’ve never loved my homeland more. See ya soon, California!
Lark Trumbly is going to be a junior at Stanford University studying psychology, with a double minor in computer science (hard) and history (fun). As a member of Nerd Nation, she does crosswords and watches Jeopardy for fun. She is a California free spirit.
Although I didn’t get to talk directly with the kids about their college applications as a test prep team member, this internship has made me reminiscent of my past, of my college application experience. They were so worried, so desperate, yet so clueless. I often talked to, and heard of, kids who did not know what they wanted to do with their lives, kids who could not talk about a happy memory with their mothers, or kids who blindly followed their parents, scores and competitions. Not all of them, of course, but a fair number of them. Things got worse for those who couldn’t speak much English: their English was not at the level to even try taking the SAT or writing a college application essay. But they did their best, we did our best, and that is the end of the story.
I don’t mean to say I gave up on them, however; I believe that most of them will go on to college and develop new ways of thinking. Critical thinking is a skill you learn, not something you naturally get, and almost every thought that we have is copied or heard from somewhere else that we don’t remember. We can’t blame them for not having enough thoughts if they were simply not exposed to such ways of thinking before. Sure, they will struggle in their colleges, but they will overcome their struggles. So if you are a student reading this, don’t beat yourself up!
Regardless of whether our teaching methods were effective or not, I do believe that both sides got something out of this camp, be it a better understanding of English grammar, a reflective essay, a new circle of friends, or a lesson in life. And yes, I do mean both sides, because I did get a lesson in life. Several lessons, in fact. I learned that North Linping Road is different from Linping Road. I learned that when you are eating Xiaolongbao, you have bite a tiny bit first. I learned to enjoy the wandering around with unexpected joys in the streets of Shanghai. Overall, I have positive experiences from China, with a tinge of pride for my kids who learned a lot… Who knows? I might meet my kids back in my school, at Dartmouth.
Jiyun attends Dartmouth College. She enjoys playing video games, learning new languages, and reading "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." In fact, on average she has read 1 novel per week over the course of the last decade. That's over 520 books!