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Feven Getachew
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Project Pengyou seeks to bridge U.S.-Chinese relations and cultures at Grinnell

Jordan Meyers ’15, Cody Combs ’15 and Sophie Wright ’17 pose with other leaders of Project Pengyou branches at a leadership summit at Harvard University. Photo contributed.

While it may be the year of the Horse in China, it’s the year of Project Pengyou in Grinnell. Jordan Meyers ’15, Cody Combs ’15 and Sophie Wright ’17 recently founded the Grinnell branch of Project Pengyou, a global community organization. Its main goal is to strengthen the bridge between the United States and China.

Meg Rudy ’14 initiated the idea for starting a chapter but graduated before Grinnell’s program got started. “She suggested it to people on campus to carry it on,” Meyers said.

“She did the preliminary work and got approval for us to become a chapter. We took off where she left off and did work on establishing it,” Combs said.

All three of them have studied abroad in China, and attribute the reason why they decided to be a part of this organization to the positive experiences they had there.

“Every time I’ve been there, it hits home the importance of establishing this relationship with the Chinese people,” Combs said. “I believe it’s important to reinforce the fact that both Americans and Chinese are part of a larger global community.”

Jordan Meyers ’15, Cody Combs ’15 and Sophie Wright ’17 pose with other leaders of Project Pengyou branches at a leadership summit at Harvard University. Photo contributed.
Jordan Meyers ’15, Cody Combs ’15 and Sophie Wright ’17 pose with other leaders of Project Pengyou branches at a leadership summit at Harvard University.
Photo contributed.

One of the main goals of the Grinnell chapter is to increase the number of students who study abroad in China.

“We want to establish Chinese language acquisition in order to achieve that goal,” Combs said. “We also want to promote cultural understanding and help with exposure to pique the initial interest.”

Another role of the Grinnell chapter focuses on building a community.

“Our role is not only to encourage people to study abroad, but to bring those who have studied abroad together,” Combs said. “We are a community of people who understand the importance of this relationship between the two nations and that we need to help grow this community.”

In order to run an effective chapter at Grinnell, Meyers, Combs and Wright went to the Project Pengyou Leadership Summit at Harvard University, which was held from Oct. 10 to 13.

“The intention of the summit was to set up leaders of the future Project Pengyou chapters and not only teach [them] on how to be leaders, but how to primarily be community organizers,” Combs said.

“The [training] they gave was a lot about organizing and mobilizing people, and also about developing narratives,” Meyers said. “We learned how to effectively, eloquently and compellingly tell different stories. It was extremely intensive but extremely rewarding.”

The next thing on the agenda for Grinnell’s chapter is Project Pengyou Day, which is going to be held on Thursday, Nov. 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. in Harris.

“It’s our big kickoff event for this organization that actually every single chapter across the country will have,” Wright said.

One component of the event is having a table arrangement to recreate different regions of China. Grinnellians who have studied abroad there and international students who have come from there will be at each table and talk about the region and their experiences there.

“The whole idea of this is to get student voices,” Wright said. “We think it’ll be a great idea for the American students to hear from other Grinnellians who have been abroad. It’s also a chance for international Chinese students to talk about where they’re from.”

There will also be a professor panel at the end of the event. “The professors who have been confirmed so far are Professor Benjamin Ridgeway, a Grinnell alum who teaches Chinese and Professor [Emeritus] Sandy Moffett, a theater professor who grew up in China and taught in Nanjing,” Wright said.

After Project Pengyou Day, the organization is also planning to establish a mentorship program.

“This pairs up a student who has been abroad with someone taking beginning Chinese,” Wright said.

However, it is different from the Chinese Lab that is already offered at the College.

“The mentors serve more as resources,” Meyers said. “It also helps with study tactics because the existing lab is great for grammar, vocab and speaking, but not as great for how to [actually] study for Chinese because the lab is composed of international students and are native speakers.”

This organization is also working towards being better known throughout campus.

“Our chapter is brand new, so we have a lot of groundwork to do,” Meyers said. “We have to get people aware of the fact that we exist, and also reach out to people who have already studied abroad as well.”

Next semester, eight Grinnellians are planning to study abroad in China, a significant increase compared to the past, in which the average was roughly three students per semester.

“I think that is absolutely wonderful,” Combs said. “That is a number that we should not only maintain but grow exponentially.”

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