The University of Iowa

Virtual youth exchange between Sister States Hebei and Iowa

May 5th, 2021

Mr. Will Zhang, the Chair of the Iowa Sister States’ Hebei Committee


High school students from two very different parts of the world came together to learn about one another, to share cultural ideas and topics from their homelands. These students come from schools in the Hebei Province of China, and from large and small towns across Iowa. 

Perhaps they have not realized it yet, but these high school students are becoming the next generation of international citizen diplomats. This was an opportunity not only for young people from two cultures to share their pride in what makes them unique, but also what makes them uniquely alike. And they did it all without leaving their own geographic boundaries.

The Hebei-Iowa Youth Exchange between Iowa Sister States and the Hebei People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries was held between April 29th (at 7:00 PM in Iowa) and April 30th (at 8:00 AM in Hebei) via Zoom. Participating schools included the students and teachers from Hebei:  Shijiazhuang Foreign Language School, Zinji No.1 Senior High School, Hebei Zhengding High School. The students and teachers from the Iowa schools came from Seymour High School, Valley High School, Pella Christian High School, Lawton-Bronson High School, and Osage High School.  

Mr. Will Zhang, the Chair of the Iowa Sister States’ Hebei Committee, introduced himself as the host. He gave a short welcome address to all students in both English and Chinese. Next, a welcome came from the Executive  Vice President of Hebei People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Ms. Lyu Xiaomei, followed by greetings from Iowa Sister States Executive Director, Karla Weilbrenner McCollum, Carolina Coronado-Park Director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Culture and Intensive English Language Program and Dr. Ben Hassman, Director of the University of Iowa’s Conversation Center.

After the introductions, students were placed into pre-assigned virtual breakout rooms, facilitated by Iowa Sister States Staff. Five students from Hebei and five students from Iowa were assigned to each room, which had language and translation help from the University of Iowa Conversation Center, as well as the University of Northern Iowa’s Culture and Intensive English language programs. Students “broke the ice” with questions about one another’s’ cultures, showed native art and foods and talked about questions for the upcoming Jeopardy game which was held after the breakouts. The Jeopardy game was set up like the American television show, and covered topics about Iowa, Hebei, and their respective countries, and Team Hebei and Team Iowa took turns answering questions. Closing remarks from Dr. Will Zhang, Ms. Lyu Xiaomei, and Karla Weilbrenner McCollum concluded the program.

The Hebei-Iowa Youth Exchange allowed students from both countries to “travel” to their respective regions of the world. Karla Weilbrenner McCollum, Executive Director of Iowa Sister States said: “Although we may be different in some ways, we are alike with the same dreams and hopes.  Our work at Iowa Sister States is so important to ensure Iowans connect abroad, fostering the idea of a shared humanity, all a part of the human race with the same goals and ideals. It was truly a wonderful night. I look forward to more events like this in the future to continue to engage Iowa  students and adults with people from around the world!”

The COVID-19 pandemic, while making international travel much more difficult, spurred on innovations for remaining in conversation around the world via the use of audio/video conferencing. In particular, Iowa Sister States has been very active in this sort of engagement: “New Beginnings,” a series of citizens Zoom discussions between Padova Province/Veneto Region, Italy, and Iowa, were held earlier this year. Topics such as education, cuisine and culture were explored, and new alliances and friendships were formed between Iowa and Italy. Translators interpreted from Italian to English and vice-versa. A similar format was utilized for this Hebei-Iowa youth program, and Iowa Sister States is continuing to develop programs such as this with our other sister states, as well as devising other programs between Hebei and Iowa. 

One of the Hebei schools kindly commented on the success of this Hebei-Iowa event, which summed up the reason these programs are so important to continuing the work of citizen diplomacy around the world: 

“On behalf of my school, I'd like to express my sincere thanks to you. This is  a precious chance for a county-level school like us. There hasn't been such an activity to communicate across countries in our school  for more than 10 years, so both the teachers and students treasure this opportunity a lot. Actually, we spent much time to make full preparations for the one-hour meeting. First, we gathered to discuss what questions to ask, and then we spent about 2 classes simulating the situation of virtual room. During the process, we even managed to buy 2 traditional local products in Xinji county: one is Sutang, crispy sweets made of peanut or sesame; the other is Pitiehua, folk art paintings with fur and lamb skin. Of course, those two typical things have been shown to the sister school in the breakout room. The students of our school are mainly from villages or small towns, and they are diligent and smart but compared to those from big cities, they just lack chances to show themselves. That's why we treasure it so much. At the beginning, they were a little shy and nervous, but gradually they became confident and dared to open their mouth, esp in the period of jeopardy games. As their tutor, I luckily witnessed their positive change from their looks and voices. Hopefully, this can be a key point for their growth. Therefore, we do hope to have more chances to communicate further with teens in your state. Thanks again for what you have done for us. We're looking forward to another meeting in the near future.”

As Iowa Sister States continues their work of helping Iowans become citizen diplomats of the world, they are committed to creating new avenues for the world to connect, no matter where we are on the globe.