When Kelly Duncan was chosen by People to People Ambassador Programs to lead a school counseling delegation to China in partnership with the American Counseling Association, she knew she would encounter a vastly different culture and worldview. Still, said Duncan, executive director of the South Dakota Counseling Association, a branch of ACA, “It was a huge surprise to find out that (China) didn’t have anything equivalent to a school counselor.”

Despite that revelation, Duncan returned from the trip confident of one truth: Although separated by thousands of miles, the people of China and the people of the United States are more alike than different.

That point was driven home when Duncan’s delegation visited an elementary school in Beijing and the students were allowed to ask the U.S. school counselors questions. When the students found out Duncan had children of her own, they were curious to know what books her daughters read. When Duncan mentioned Harry Potter, “There was an eruption of excitement,” she said. “I just thought, ’How universal.’”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that international understanding would increase the chances of peace among nations and established the People to People Ambassador Programs to facilitate that process. He also decided that private citizens would be more effective than government entities in carrying out People to People’s mission.

As Mary J. Eisenhower, CEO of People to People International and President Eisenhower’s granddaughter, states on the organization’s website: “(He) believed that ordinary citizens of different nations, if able to communicate directly, would solve their differences and find a way to live in peace. This simple thought — that people can make the difference where government cannot — is People to People’s foundation. He believed that if people could visit each other’s homes, attend their schools and see their places of worship, then the misunderstandings, misperceptions and resulting suspicions — which were making war a viable option — would disappear. He wanted people to know and understand that while we are all very different, our values, goals and day-to-day issues are very much the same.”
The relationship between ACA and People to People began when ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan led a delegation of counselors to China in October 2004. Near the end of 2005, two additional delegations co-sponsored by ACA visited China, one led by Duncan that focused on school counseling and another led by Amy Benedict-Augustine that focused on career counseling.
Kelly Duncan, school counseling delegation.

Duncan’s delegation included 11 other school counselors from across the United States, plus a graduate student. After arriving in China, the group members spent two full days at Beijing Normal University, where they joined 11 other education-related delegations at the 2005 U.S.-China Joint Education Conference. The delegates received an overview of China itself and then heard presenters speak on various aspects of education in both the United States and China.

Duncan, an assistant professor of counselor education at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., presented on the role of the school counselor in the United States. Her counterpart from China presented on the Asian nation’s mandatory moral education program, which is part of its school system. “What I can closely liken it to is the character education programs we offer in elementary schools in the United States,” Duncan said. “But it was very, very clear to us that day that they didn’t utilize school counselors the way we do (in the United States).”

Three of the delegates from Duncan’s group also gave presentations on counseling programs taking place in their individual schools. “That day we had a lot of dialogue with our Chinese counterparts,” Duncan said. “They were just like sponges, wanting to soak up everything we told them. School counseling is in its really early birth there as a profession, so there is much opportunity for dialogue, sharing of ideas and collaboration.”

Beijing Normal recently became the first university in China to offer a school counseling study track to its students, Duncan said. The program is in its infancy and is not yet equivalent to a full-blown master’s program, she said. In fact, Duncan has been invited to help Beijing Normal develop an appropriate curriculum for its school counseling track.

While the interactions and idea exchanges at the education conference were rewarding, Duncan said, “By that third day we were just itching to get into school settings.” The time spent with students at two Beijing elementary schools ended up being Duncan’s favorite part of the trip.

Duncan and her fellow delegates fielded questions from students at both schools. Interest among the students, most of whom were 10 to 12 years old, picked up noticeably when Duncan revealed that she was not only the mother of multiple children but of four daughters. China has practiced a one-birth policy — highly discouraging couples from having more than one child — since the late 1970s in an effort to control its population growth. In addition, in general, sons are still more valued in China than daughters because sons traditionally assume the role of working and taking care of their parents as they age.

One student even asked Duncan what she thought of China’s one-birth policy, which Duncan admits she answered “very delicately.” But the focus of the questions soon shifted to Duncan’s daughters themselves — what they liked to read and how they spent their “pocket change” (or allowance, as Duncan eventually figured out).

While Duncan and the rest of her delegation had to rely on translators in most instances to communicate with their Chinese counterparts, she came away impressed that China has recognized the benefit of bilingualism. English is now being taught in many classrooms, beginning in kindergarten, she said. In fact, many of the elementary school students the delegates talked to already spoke English better than their teachers, she noted.

The closest equivalent in China to an American-style school counselor was the teacher in charge of the moral education program, Duncan said. Otherwise, she said, the lead classroom teacher tended to handle tasks and situations in Chinese schools that school counselors or administrators would handle in the United States.

From what Duncan witnessed, children with severe emotional or learning problems are not placed in China’s public school system. She also received the impression that China’s schools do not have as many discipline problems as U.S. schools. However, she said, classroom teachers, who handle most of the disciplinary matters in Chinese schools, reported that more of these problems are beginning to crop up. According to Duncan, teachers ascribed this in some part to China’s one-birth policy, saying that children tend to be “spoiled” by receiving the undivided attention of their parents. Schools in China are also beginning to deal with the issue of bullying, Duncan said, which they believe has to do with their students’ exposure to Western media.

There is a strong emphasis on academic preparation and achievement in the Chinese school system, Duncan said, because all students who want to continue on to a university must take a national entrance exam. “That exam really kind of charts their future,” she said. But there is also growing recognition among school personnel that this pressure-packed environment causes students stress, Duncan said. She expects more steps will be taken in the future to help students cope.

Despite the lack of “American-style” school counselors, Duncan was impressed by many components of the Chinese school system. In fact, she said, in many instances China’s teachers were meeting the main planks of the American School Counselor Association National Model — academic achievement, social/personal development and career development.

“There is quite an emphasis in China on getting parents involved (in their children’s education) and in recognizing these parents for their efforts,” Duncan said. In return, there appears to be a huge investment in education among the parents, she said.

In addition, she said, the profession of teaching is cherished in China. “Teachers are highly, highly respected in ways that I think we’ve lost here in the United States,” Duncan said. “That’s probably why they don’t have as many discipline problems. And the teachers desire to give extra because they feel so appreciated.”

Duncan also noted that Chinese students have far more global perspective in general than U.S. students. They have a firm grasp not only of Chinese history, she said, but also the history of the rest of the world.

The students also have a strong belief that each individual plays an important role in making up a healthy family and nation, Duncan said. “Their thinking is, ’If we prosper, our country prospers,’” she said. “They don’t take as individualistic a view of things. They believe in working collaboratively and cooperatively.”

In her final address to the Joint Education Conference, Duncan discussed her delegation’s experience in China: “As I reflect upon the time spent with our Chinese counterparts and experiences at the Chinese schools we visited, it is apparent to me that we have far more in common than in terms of differences. We all share as a goal the desire that children be happy and well-adjusted. We share in common our desire to instill an excitement and love for learning that helps children be successful academically. We hope the children with which we work will learn to love themselves and others so they can have harmonious personal and social relationships. And we hope we can assist them to choose a career or calling for their life that is the right fit and can continue to add to the harmony in their lives. We have much to share and learn from each other as this profession grows in both the United States and China. New techniques combined with ancient traditions can create a next generation filled with individuals who understand self and others and share a passion for collaboration and cooperation.”

Since returning from China in December, Duncan has been asked if she would lead another counseling delegation to either China or Russia. She’s also been in regular contact, via e-mail, with three Chinese university students who spent time with her delegation and were particularly excited about school counseling practices and theories. Duncan is exploring the possibility of bringing the students to the United States or of organizing a teacher exchange between China and the United States.

“Regardless of where we live, we get caught up in the narrow view of what’s just outside our kitchen window,” Duncan said. “But encountering other cultures enhances our ability to understand differences in worldview and reminds us that, ’Oh yeah, there are different ways to look at things.’ It also enhances our own work when we come back home.”
Amy Benedict-Augustine, career development
Benedict-Augustine was a member of the first ACA-led People to People counseling delegation to China in October 2004. Amazed by the experience, she commented to David Kaplan while on the trip that she would love to return to China with a delegation of career development professionals. He encouraged Benedict-Augustine, director of the Career Development Office at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, to pitch the idea to People to People.

She followed through, and in November 2005, with help from the National Career Development Association, ACA and the National Association of Colleges and Employers, she returned to China leading a People to People delegation focused on career development. Her group included 18 people, including 16 who worked in college career offices or as career consultants.

The delegation visited a variety of settings and people associated with career development in China, including:

  • The deputy director of legal affairs for the nation’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security
  • The Guiding and Servicing Center for Student Employment at Beijing University
  • Personnel from the School of Psychology and the Career Guidance Center at Beijing Normal University
  • CBP Career Consultants
  • The Shanghai Community Aid Center for Employment

Delegation members also gave copies of NCDA’s journal, The Career Development Quarterly, to their Chinese counterparts. The journal issue focused on career development topics from an international perspective. “Career development is really in its infancy in China,” explained Benedict-Augustine, a member of ACA, NCDA and the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. “Many of our career development theories don’t translate because of cultural and governmental reasons. … But generally speaking, the people we talked to were very pleased by the information we shared. Everyone we met was very excited to develop collegial relationships and wanted to continue the conversations.”

The potential growth of the career development profession in China is particularly intriguing, Benedict-Augustine said, because of the dramatic social and economic changes taking place. Career choice is still something of a foreign concept in China, she pointed out, because until relatively recently, people had their jobs assigned to them by the government. They often remained in the same job throughout the course of their working life.

Today’s university students are very excited about the prospect not only of choosing their own jobs but also mapping their own career paths, said Benedict-Augustine. However, both students and career development professionals in China still face unique obstacles. For instance, she said, high school students must take a national entrance exam that largely dictates which college or university they can attend and what they can study.

Currently, high school students must also determine their majors before entering college — usually with little or no career guidance — and are given only one chance to change their majors. “They also face family pressure to choose a ’suitable career’ and ’save face’ for the family,” Benedict-Augustine said. Zhi-Jin Hou, an associate professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University and the person leading the charge for career development in China on the academic front, explained to the delegation that parents often pressure their children to select high-prestige areas of study such as medicine or law. As delegate Brian Schwartz, a consulting psychologist and expert in the field of career management, pointed out in his summary of the meeting, this pressure means “many pursue those degrees without any interest in their studies.”

University students in China are also in great need of career counseling because during their senior year they sign employment contracts. These contracts can last from one year to several years and must be fulfilled before they can change jobs. And again, culture plays an influential role in job choice. “Students are drawn to professions by status and how it will help the country,” wrote delegate and career management consultant Jon Sakurai-Horita in his summary of the presentation at the Beijing University Guiding and Servicing Center for Student Employment. “A career is not just a way to make a living but a way to be a ’pillar’ to help China do more for society.”

The delegation also learned about China’s residency cards. Chinese citizens cannot simply “move where the jobs are,” Benedict-Augustine said. An employer must be willing to hire you and help you get a residency card for that particular area before you are allowed to move, she said. This policy severely limits people living in rural areas, where there is less job choice and resources, she said. To complicate matters further, many employees must leave their families behind to accept a new job. Their partners are forced to remain where they hold residency until they can also secure employment and a new residency card. “It’s a very interesting challenge,” said Benedict-Augustine.

Another area Benedict-Augustine found especially intriguing was the explosive growth of private career consulting firms in China. “There is fierce competition in China between these organizations,” she said. “They’re realizing that there’s a need to be filled here, and they’re all clamoring to be the best.” CBP Career Consultants was the first career consulting firm in China, established in June 2004. Less than two years later, more than 300 competitors have entered the marketplace. CBP explained the many challenges it is facing to the delegation, including resolving how to combine Eastern and Western cultures and values in the field of career development, determining what factors will impact career development in China in the future and trying to establish some type of required qualifications for career consultants.

Despite the obstacles, Benedict-Augustine is encouraged by the work already taking place in China. She came away particularly impressed by Zhi-Jin Hou’s work at Beijing Normal to develop career development theories and services. The two have developed an e-mail correspondence and have discussed working on a joint research project focused on the differences in the ways Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans make career decisions.

Benedict-Augustine was also impressed by representatives of a Peking University student association interested in conducting and promoting career development research. The students wanted to continue a dialogue with Benedict-Augustine, and upon returning to the United States, she set up a “pen pal” exchange of career development issues between these students and student peer advisers in her career development office at Cornell. She is in the process of expanding the exchange to include other career development offices at Cornell.

Benedict-Augustine said she would highly recommend that all counselors participate in a People to People delegation. “It broadened my understanding of the issues in other cultures,” she said. “I got new ideas, but the trip also made me realize the effectiveness of many of our existing ideas. As the group has kept in touch (after returning to the United States), many have said it was a life-changing experience, both personally and professionally.”