Rosh Hashana was only a few days away, so one group of students happily explained how they celebrate the Jewish new year.
Another group of students sat attentively, learning about a religion they’ve never experienced, before taking their turn to explain the Mid-Autumn Festival. These students, sitting in a classroom more than 7,000 miles away, attend the Zhenjiang First Foreign Language School, located in the Jiangsu province of China.
Connected by cameras, microphones and a large television screen, the classmates took turns talking about dipping apples in honey and meanings behind the symbols on top of mooncakes, respectively, before returning to their course material for GEOG 151: World Regional Geography.
“Part of the goal is not just learning about geography, but it’s about learning about different cultures,” Reisinger said. “Another big goal of my course is to get the students to know each other, [to] get to communicate with one another [and to] get to interact with one another. Obviously, the best way to do that is through discussion.”
This small section of World Regional Geography is taught through Harpur College’s University Readiness Program (URP), which allows high school students in China to take Binghamton University classes in preparation for the U.S. educational climate, while earning credit toward their future degrees.
Reisinger is the program’s lead teacher and has been at BU since 2001, and began teaching this course when URP started in 2012. For the first year, the course didn’t include BU students at all.
“[I was] actually doing the class from my office,” Reisinger said. “[I was] sitting on my computer talking to these students and having these wonderful conversations, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is ridiculous — we should have some Binghamton [University] students here taking advantage of these wonderful discussions.’”
The following year, in the fall of 2013, Reisinger, who is a collegiate professor (formerly referred to as faculty master) in Newing College, opened up the class to a small group of freshman residents of the community. The current class is composed of 13 BU students and 13 Zhenjiang First Foreign Language School students who meet Mondays and Tuesdays from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., which is 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. China Standard Time. Once daylight saving time ends, the BU students will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Ben Kahn, a member of the class and an undeclared freshman, said he’s benefited from learning about the cultural differences and similarities between himself and his international classmates.
“One thing that I’ve found is that I tend to discount people when they have different accents and try to speak in English with that, with a lower command of English, because it’s not their first language,” he said. “And that’s just something I’m excited to learn to get out of.”
In addition to shattering stereotypes, Reisinger said these “cultural interactions” introduce his Chinese students to the U.S. teaching style.
“The education system in China is vastly different than it is here,” he said. “In many Chinese classes, students will essentially sit there and they absorb what the teacher is saying. There’s really no interaction — no participation.”
Reisinger teaches a flipped class, meaning that all lectures are prerecorded and to be watched before the students come to class, so class time is focused on discussion. Additionally, the students work in small groups — two BU students and two Zhenjiang First Foreign Language School students — to complete a research project. This involves the use of technology outside of class, which Reisinger said has been a challenge.
“The parents [in China] don’t want their students to be using technology,” he said. “I’m trying to convince them that, you know, in an American classroom, you’re using technology. You’re using technology all of the time and you have to have access to technology to be able to complete assignments, to do all sorts of things.”
Elaine Wu, a former URP student who is now a junior majoring in geography at BU, said she didn’t think URP was useful when she was in high school. Once she started classes at BU, however, Wu said she realized how much more prepared she was than her friends who had no experience in a U.S. classroom.
Although URP students are not required to come to BU, many of them choose to. Wu said that knowing she’d see familiar faces influenced her decision to attend BU.
“[Reisinger] is a very nice professor,” she said. “I think [he] is one of the reasons why I chose the geography major.”
Wu and Reisinger discuss everything from roommate troubles to summer plans and Chinese culture. Reisinger said he appreciates having the opportunity to form these bonds.
“I love working with international students to begin with,” he said. “But [URP has] really given me a close relationship with lots of students from China, because once they know that you’ve visited there and that you’re familiar with the country and things like that, they kind of tend to gravitate.”
Engaging with URP students has made Reisinger more empathetic toward international students and he said he brings that empathy to his “more traditional” classrooms.
“As a faculty member, I have gained such an appreciation for international students and some of the difficulties they face,” he said. “It’s so amazing, and I really wish more faculty members would have this kind of opportunity. Maybe it would help them to understand a little bit about some of the struggles that international students, in particular, face.”