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China experience leads to Peace Corps assignment

by Tammy Tian

Inside a bustling city in the heart of China, one step into the streets and everything seemed coated with a layer of dirt.  From the dusty high rises to the hazy cloud of polluted air, the first impression that Ben Elmakias, UW Class of 2014, had of China was undeniably bleak.  And yet, despite the problems he encountered during his study abroad experience in the northern port city of Tianjin in 2013, this summer Elmakias will return to China to begin his training as an English teacher Peace Corps Volunteer.

“It’s kind of like when you’re driving past a car accident and you inevitably slow down to stare,” he explained. “You want to know what’s going on.  You feel bad that things aren’t working so well, but you still want to understand it.  That’s my China.”

A gateway to teaching and personal growth

The first week of March 2015 is Peace Corps Week, which will be marked by several Madison events, including an informational meeting at the Red Gym and a “story slam” at Brocach Irish Pub on the Capitol Square .  (Click on http://peacecorps.wisc.edu/events.html  for more details.)

Peace Corps was on Elmakias’ mind for years before he made the decision to apply.  His interest was tied to his desire to teach others, and to his gratitude for the influential teachers in his own life who guided him through difficulties.  He said his high school English teacher and his college mentors, in particular, helped him get to a positive path of accepting himself and realizing what was important in his life.  Now he wants to emulate their good example. 

His thinks his two-year role with the Peace Corps teaching English in a Chinese locale will allow him to test whether becoming an English teacher makes sense. 

He also hopes that the Peace Corps will train him in how to work in a starkly different political and cultural environment.  Through Peace Corps forums and on-line materials, Elmakias learned that he should not expect to be able to change the world and will need to recognize that while in China he will be a small part of a complicated situation.

“I have an idealism of ‘I wish everyone could be happy,’” he said, adding that he knows he must also be realistic about his goals.

To future Peace Corps applicants, he recommends that, “You can certainly influence the people you’re going to be in contact with, but you have no control over how big of an influence you will have.”  In addition, applicants should join the Peace Corps “for the right reasons,” which means understanding that you will be working with people who need your skills, not heading off for two fun years free of financial obligations. 

Elmakias views his upcoming experience as an opportunity for “doing something I love and enjoy” while developing a better understanding of cultural differences.  “Becoming a global citizen demands expansive sensitivity and awareness that being ‘right’ is relative to context,” he said.

You can’t ignore China

It was at the UW-Madison that Elmakias began to learn Chinese, including his study abroad summer in Tianjin, and he graduated with a major in both English and Chinese.  Some courses that shaped his lens into China were: “Contemporary Chinese Society” with Professor Sida Liu, literature classes with Professor Rania Huntington, and a Daoism class with Professor Mark Meulenbeld.  Elmakias hopes that his upcoming two years in China will fine tune his Chinese to a colloquial level and also provide insight into possible future research topics in Chinese literature.

Elmakias has also embraced the Chinese community on campus.  Last year, he set up the East Asian Cultural Exchange, a student organization that facilitates discussion with Korean, Japanese, Chinese and American students about sensitive or contemporary social topics.

“If you have no interest in China you haven’t learned enough about it,” he said. “If you read a couple articles, it’ll just suck you in.”


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Click here to learn about President Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” to increase the number and diversity of American students studying in China.



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