Students in Beijing & Greensburg Share Online Classroom During Quarantine

In June 2006, representatives from Seton Hill and Beijing Union University in China signed a formal agreement to become “sister-schools.” At a signing ceremony held at Seton Hill, the universities pledged to develop joint educational programs. In creating the partnership, both schools hoped to encourage their students to travel, to experience different cultures first hand, and to learn from them.

In the years that followed, students from Beijing Union regularly traveled to Seton Hill, and groups of Seton Hill students, often led by Professor of History John Spurlock, Ph.D., made their way to China. When studying abroad in China, Seton Hill students would live at Beijing Union University and take morning courses in Mandarin. In the afternoons, and on weekends, they would travel with John and other Seton Hill professors to places like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Shanghai and Suzhou. 

And then COVID-19 happened.

Connecting During a Pandemic

“Thomas Karlsson and I have known one another since 2012,” John says. “We met in Beijing during one of the Seton Hill exchanges that I led.”

 Thomas Karlsson is a professor in the College of International Education at Beijing Union University. While he normally teaches business and economics classes in the School of Foreign Studies, he was teaching an English class for the University’s Tourism College when lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 outbreak began.

“We had been exchanging WeChat messages regarding the quarantine in China when I finally made the connection that he would be teaching an English class during the same term that I would have a Chinese history course,” John says. “For that course, in the past, I had students use WeChat to interview Chinese students about research topics. I thought that instead of that we could set up a direct exchange between my students and his.” 

As an Apple Distinguished School, Seton Hill provides mobile technology to its students and faculty, and training on how to use it. That doesn’t mean getting people together online is always easy. Especially during a global pandemic. 

“For some reason, my students could not get into the Chinese Zoom meetings,” John says. “So I brought everyone into a Zoom meeting I set up, and one of my students was able to separate people into Zoom breakout rooms. A lot of credit goes to [Seton Hill student] Jared Krol for taking the initiative on that.”

A Conversation Spanning Cultures & Continents

The professors had envisioned a directed, academic exchange, with the Beijing Union students asking the Seton Hill students about specific topics. At the time the class met, the Chinese students were coming off quarantine. Seton Hill, however, had just closed its campus and moved all classes online, in preparation for the coronavirus’ projected incursion into southwestern Pennsylvania. In light of the unique circumstances, the conversations became a little more informal - but no less valuable. 

“Overall, Inga was very open to conversation and tried very hard to give thorough answers. We discussed many things, such as the sports we play or have played, whether or not we have travelled, and plans after we graduate.”

- Alexa Civittolo, Seton Hill Global Studies & Political Science Major; Student-Athlete

“I loved being able to speak to the Chinese students and get to know them and their country. It was a great experience for me!”

- Nicolette Peterson, Seton Hill Criminal Justice & Sociology Major

 “Through this exchange, I realized that my English speaking is not very good. But I’ve decided to take English learning more seriously and practice oral English more. In the future, I will be able to communicate with American students in English more fluently, and travel to America by myself one day!”

- Beijing Union University Student

“They asked us about our impression of China, where I shared how my impression is that is busy and crowded. To me, this reveals that Americans have stereotypes about not only China, but many places around the world. This is why an experience such as talking to people first hand and traveling is important.” 

- Meghan Milanak, Seton Hill Physician Assistant Major

“Something she was curious about was if American parents were really as lax as they were showed in the movies, this led us to ask her whether or not she was pressured to study, which surprisingly they are not.”

- Maxwell Marlatt, Seton Hill Computer Science Major

“The enthusiasm of the American students inspired me to let go of my fear and just try my best. This encouraged me to work harder on improving my English.” 

- Beijing Union University Student

“A Chinese student who was being rather shy up until this point spoke up and asked us if we had dialects and we disappointedly told her that no we don't. We are boring in that regard although we do have some fun accents which can cause some confusion. I tried to do a quick survey to see if anyone in the group had a strong enough accent to demonstrate. A couple of us tried which got a lot of laughs from both sides.”

- Katelyn Sinn, Seton Hill Physician Assistant Major

Shared Learning Through Adversity

Beijing Union University’s Director of Global Exchanges, Pang Ming, took part in the 2006 ceremony that formalized the partnership between the two schools. With travel between the countries necessarily curtailed, she was pleased to see that the online classroom project  “injected enthusiasm for learning English among this group of Beijing Union University students, and sparked the Seton Hill students’ desire to learn more about China.”

“Out of the challenges that COVID-19 isolation and quarantine have thrust upon us,” Thomas says, “the creative use of new technology can allow us to take steps towards building more global unity.”