HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network) – China Educational Exchange’s 25-year anniversary and its name change to Mennonite Partners in China marks the program’s broadening work in China. MPC commemorated the anniversary with a program in Chengdu in October.
While no major program changes are planned, the name change intends to more clearly identify MPC as a Mennonite program to the North American constituency. “Since our work has moved beyond educational exchange to include church partnerships and social assistance, we felt that our name should not be as narrowly defined,” said Myrrl Byler, director of MPC.
English teachers popular, needed in China
Mennonite English teachers in China are so popular children are dragged from one instructor to another by parents demanding individual tutoring for their child.
Todd Hanson, a Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in China since 1991, recently invited a student – the daughter of a persistent university official – to join him on his morning jog in order to provide some tutoring time. Learning English, Hanson said, is seen as a sort of Holy Grail among Chinese young people, who are seeking every possible advantage in an increasingly competitive society.
The popularity of English learning has over the years grown well beyond the traditional university population. The church in Nanchong where Hanson and his family worship offers four levels of English classes: kindergarten, primary school, junior middle school and adult. It also offers primary school teachers an opportunity to upgrade their English language skills.
“It took less than half a morning to fill all of the slots, and we are still receiving requests from parents who didn’t manage to get their children enrolled,” Hanson said.
The high demand means that teachers such as Hanson frequently work well beyond normal working hours and spend summer breaks taking English classes to churches in other regions of the vast country.
On Teachers Day – a national day of recognition in China – a former student sent Hanson an email which said, in part, “You are like a third parent. … You have our respect and gratefulness. You have been a qualified teacher and even better friend."
MPC’s social services include a student sponsorship program, rehabilitation for deaf and handicapped children and a counseling center, as well as a church-based drug rehabilitation program. It serves mostly in Sichuan Province in south-central China.
“In the future we want to focus more on students, schools and persons who have not been able to advance so quickly,” Byler said. MPC will further its efforts in smaller and rural schools and its work with Chinese people who are concerned about the society’s needs, such as poverty, the environment, health care and more.
With headquarters in Harrisonburg, MPC is a program of four Mennonite agencies: Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Mennonite Central Committee and Eastern Mennonite Missions.
Byler said the integrity of the program is found in the commitment and motivation of the more than 260 North Americans who have taught in China for at least one year. “About 25 percent of our teachers have enjoyed China so much that they stayed for three or more years,” he said. “Some have lived here for more than ten years.”
He also values the program’s principle of reciprocity, as almost 150 English teachers and foreign affairs officials, most of them from the Sichuan Province, have spent at least one semester at a Mennonite college.
Cai Li, director of international education at the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Education for most of the past 25 years, said the achievement of MPC is great, especially considering the lasting length of time, the number of people involved and goals accomplished. “This result depends on the devotion and dedication, and relies on a strong sense of commitment,” he said. Li was the main Chinese government official who supported MPC and Goshen (Ind.) College’s Study-Service Term.
Kathi Suderman, who has served with MPC with her husband, Rod, from 1998 to 2006, said MPC continues to benefit from the dedication of its English teachers, who return to North America with a new understanding of China. “Many also find meaningful ways to share that understanding,” she said.
Suderman said MPC’s distinction lies in its transparency, not hiding the fact that it is a Christian organization. “The fact that this exchange has continued for 25 years is a good indication that it has been received well by partnering institutions in China,” she said.
Lawrence Burkholder, then president of Goshen College, signed an agreement with the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Education for an undergraduate exchange in 1979. The following year, a group of students spent one semester at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu and nine visiting professors from Sichuan colleges spent an academic year at Goshen College. It was the first undergraduate exchange between a U.S. college and a Chinese educational institution since China's re-opening.
MPC was created in 1981 to meet a request for an enlarged exchange and more teachers. Now it builds relationships and carries out projects with Chinese partners in educational institutions, local government organizations, social service agencies and Protestant churches.