Rivers as Bridges: two UI students reflect on their experiences in China

RAB logoRivers as Bridges is a program that examines the sister-river relationship of the Mississippi River in America and the Yangtze River in China. The Yangtze and Mississippi have rich histories and are vital channels of commerce in each nation. This program enables top students from China and the United States to travel and study these critical rivers while teaching them to appreciate and protect the natural resources that serve their countries. The project complements efforts by the world’s governments, as well as non-government and private sectors, to find new models for sustaining working river systems.

In March 2013, two students from the University of Iowa traveled to China on the Rivers as Bridges program. Below, they share their thoughts and reflections on this unique experience:

Tess Haverkamp

Q. Why did you choose to participate in this program?

KYRA: The Rivers As Bridges program is ahead of a lot of programs in the fact that it has a focus that is critical to the success of our countries (China and the U.S.) and to the development of our future. It was a very easy decision once the opportunity was presented to me.

TESS: I'm studying Chinese language at the University, so they were the ones who let me know about the program. I thought it would be a good way to learn a little more about Chinese culture and language. I also love to travel, so I'll take any opportunity I can to go abroad!

Kyra and Tess with friends

Q. What activities or projects did you do in China? What was a typical day like?

KYRA: In China we attended a mixture of meetings, cultural events, tours, and attractions. I had the opportunity to work in microbial fuel cell lab, meet a mayor, visit the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, travel to four different cities (Beijing Shanghai, Xiamen, & Wuxi), meet high school and middle school children, and converse with city officials and business owners (on the topics of air/water pollutants, technology transfers, and all things that the Midwest has to offer). 

TESS: There were basically two main parts: sightseeing and building relationships. We tried to build relationships and learn about the environmental situation in China. We attended a lot of meetings, went to different universities and schools, and labs. Our goal was not only to lay the groundwork for future trips, but also to meet people in our field who we could learn from and network with

Kyra with friend

Q. What did you learn?

KYRA: Every day that I am back in the States I realize that my opinions on so many issues have developed or changed due to my recent visit to China. It is truly invigorating. It adds to my already standing opinion that everyone should travel outside of their comfort zone and experience a different culture (for some that is leaving their country).

In the RAB program it became extremely apparent that in order for our country to succeed at our many endeavors, the sharing of ideas, the offering of assistance, and trade cross-culturally is essential. There are a ton of equally beneficial opportunities for collaboration between our countries. 

TESS: I learned about the similarities between the environmental problems in the U.S. and those in China. It is exciting that people in both countries are identifying these problems and doing something about them. RAB is especially focused on building this connection between the U.S. and China through the young people of both countries.

Q. What was one particularly memorable experience or moment of your trip to China?

KYRA: There were also high school students on this trip. It was really cool to be alongside them as they made their first trip out of the country without their parents and to see them become aware of their privilege, and realize that the way we do things here in Iowa isn’t the only way to do something. They tried really hard to immerse themselves and really experience China the best they could.

TESS: On the last day in China, we were able to participate in a round table discussion about environmental concerns at a school in Shanghai. It was exciting to see the passion of the students and the possibilities for these two countries and the changes my generation could make in the future.

Kyra with friend

Q. Did anything about China really surprise you?

KYRA: I was surprised by the level of hospitality the Chinese presented us with. I was also intrigued by the numerous differences I noted between the Japanese and Chinese culture. In the U.S. we often group ‘Asians’ together in this inseparable group all though we know that historically, geographically, and culturally they are different. It was cool to take note of that first hand on my trip.

TESS: I was surprised by how different the four cities we went to were. Each location had unique food, sights, history, scenery, etc. Although China is a really big country, it is easy to think of it as a homogeneous place if you have never been there. Also, in China there are a lot of traditional street/markets where you are allowed to bargain prices. It is a fun part of Chinese culture that we just don't get to experience in the U.S.

Q. How do you imagine this experience will benefit your life/education back in the U.S.?

KYRA: It was really cool to be able to travel to the homeland of so many of my friends on campus. Although I was only there for a small amount of time, I did learn a lot about business and dinner etiquette- I can only see that as being beneficial somewhere in my life.

TESS: Although I was able to get great experience with the language and culture (my initial goals), I think the most valuable experience was traveling with a delegation and being able to see inter-country proceedings firsthand. The personal connections I met were also invaluable, and I am excited to see where they will take me in the future.

Q. Would you recommend the Rivers as Bridges program to others?

Kyra and Tess on plane

KYRA: Absolutely. The RAB staff  know where the future is really held- in the palms of the youth. The people involved in RAB understand and promote the concept that we (high school and college students) are not too young to understand. Better yet, they believe we may understand better and have insight to solve some problems that ‘adults’ can’t. RAB offered a very supportive and inspiring environment for all the students involved. They really believe in us. 

The RAB program also did a phenomenal job at highlighting the importance of preserving history and tradition while at the same time presenting the feasibility of doing so simultaneously along other initiatives. Development doesn’t have to come at the cost of your most treasured resources, such as the environment or your values, there is space in our future for growth if we remember that, be proactive, and share our successes with others. 

TESS: It was an amazing experience. In just a week, I was able to form and change my perceptions and views about diplomacy and government and gain invaluable international and personal experiences. It would be especially valuable for anyone interested in international relations or environmental studies. It is exciting that people in both countries are identifying the problems in the environment and doing something about those concerns. RAB is especially focused on building this connection between the US and China with the young people of both countries.

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