Apr. 12, 2013
When they traveled to China over spring break, 10 Buena Vista University students and their faculty leaders had an opportunity that most foreign visitors don't have — camping overnight on an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China.
For Karl Ahrendsen, a junior physics and computer science/mathematics double major from Clarion, the night on the Great Wall ranks as one of his most memorable life experiences.
"Combine a world landmark such as the Great Wall with a treacherous hike to the top, a terrible night of sleep, and a beautiful sunrise in the morning and it all resulted in an experience that will be embedded in my mind forever," he says.
The trip was led by Dr. Wind Goodfriend, associate professor of psychology, and Tim McDaniel, assistant professor of mathematics and business, who had made a trip a year ago to scout the itinerary the students were originally scheduled to follow in China and North Korea. The North Korea leg of the trip was cancelled the day before the group left campus because of safety concerns in the wake of increasing political tensions, including threats by the North Korean government to take U.S. citizens hostage.
The trip was the centerpiece of a semester-long BVU travel course that focused on North Korea.
"Seeing China fulfilled the same general educational objectives for the trip, although in different ways than we had originally planned," notes McDaniel. "The fact that Professor Goodfriend and I have deep and broad experiences involving international travel courses, as well as travel experiences in China in particular, also proved to be very important in that regard."
Camping on the Great Wall is allowed only by special permission, says Goodfriend. "We were able to arrange the overnight stay because of contacts Professor McDaniel and I had made in China on our trip last year."
"The temperature during the camping experience was well below freezing, but we maintained a positive attitude the entire time — singing and telling stories to pass the time," adds Goodfriend. "We were able to get up early enough to watch the sun rise over the Chinese mountains and the Great Wall."
"Scaling the icy mountain and then the Wall itself in the dark with flashlights was extremely arduous and we had to be very careful," McDaniel noted. "The experience definitely increased our intra-group bonding and was a great way to start our travel in China."
While cancellation of travel to North Korea was disappointing, the students found that the alternate plan to explore China worked out well. Their itinerary included visits to Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. A few of the main activities included seeing the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xi'an and the embalmed body of Mao Zedong in Beijing; walking through the Forbidden City in Beijing; and visiting other popular tourist attractions. Additional activities included dinner at a home in a small Chinese village; a two-hour biking tour of Beijing; and a ride on the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi'an.
"I think the decision to go to China was a great one," says Estefany Gonzalez, a senior accounting major from Orange City. "Though we did not go to North Korea, we still were able to get some insight about North Korea through our Chinese tour guides, and by speaking with a North Korean expert at dinner in a restaurant in downtown Beijing, as well as having lunch at a North Korean restaurant near the North Korean embassy." The students also had the opportunity to see works by North Korean artists in the 798 Art District in Beijing.
"The trip made me appreciate even more the vast cultures of the world," says Estefany. "It has inspired me to travel to other countries and learn about their unique cultures. I definitely want to experience as much of the world as I can."
"Previously, I had no interest in the Chinese language and culture," says Karl. "Now I have a new respect for it and am strongly considering taking a Chinese language course next semester. I also have a greater appreciation for the rights we are free to exercise as Americans."
One of the best experiences for the group was a day of community service at an institution in Beijing that provides daily care for adults with learning disabilities, says Goodfriend. "We were able to interact with them, including dancing, playing card games, ping pong and making friendship bracelets. We also spoke with the president of the organization about the possibility of BVU students coming back to complete voluntary internships."
Goodfriend believes one of the main benefits of the trip occurred because of the last minute change in plans. "All of us learned that flexibility in travel plans is necessary to have a positive and enlightening experience. We hope the students will be able to generalize this flexibility in multiple life contexts. While life can be unpredictable, making the most of every situation is the key to academic and personal success."
McDaniel is optimistic that a future trip to North Korea is a possibility. " Of course, the safety of our students is always the primary concern of the university and of Dr. Goodfriend and me. If the level of hostility and aggression currently being expressed by the North Korean government subsides then it is possible that a BVU group could travel there at some point in the future."