COTTONWOOD - At 15 years of age, Devon Howard wants to see the world.
Last year, the Mingus Union High School student studied Spanish. Now a junior, Devon is taking Chinese.
"I wanted to learn something I could use traveling the world," Devon says. "Not just something I can use in my home town."
Having taken both Spanish and Chinese has helped Devon "memorize more words and numbers."
"With the way the Chinese characters work, the letter R is E-R," he says. "The accents, they change the significance of the letters."
On Devon's short list for personal globalization is a trip to China after he graduates college. When that happens, he'll be able to thank his Chinese language teacher, who is actually a Chinese resident in the United States taking part in the U.S. Department of State's Teachers of Critical Languages Program (TCLP).
In June, Aihua Yu was officially awarded a fellowship through the U.S. Department of State to participate in the program, one of 24 teachers from China and Egypt to be in American schools teaching their language this year.
As with many schools, Mingus has hosted its share of foreign exchange students who take classes, learn the American culture and assimilate with Americans of all origins.
Funded by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, TCLP is implemented by American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS, an international non-profit organization that prepares individuals and institutions to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.
Mingus didn't set out to teach Mandarin
For the past two years, Mingus has taken the overseas learning model so seriously that it has sought teachers from China to teach their language and to help provide its students a more globally aware experience.
Mingus Principal Jennifer Chilton says that the school "didn't set out to teach Mandarin."
"We were looking for opportunities for our students," Chilton says. "Given our being somewhat isolated, we wanted to provide this experience to as many students as we possibly can."
So Mingus applied for a grant though the Department of State to be involved in the Teachers of Critical Languages Program.
"They interviewed schools," Chilton says. "It's quite an honor to be chosen. Our history of supporting the cultural exchange of students was probably a factor."
Chilton approximates that 75 students will take Aihua Yu's Mandarin Chinese class at Mingus this school year.
"A lot of kids expressed an interest in taking the class," Chilton says. "This is a lifetime of human cultural impact. These programs are powerful."
The Department of State provides grant funds for two years. After the grant expires, Mingus could hire a Mandarin teacher through the Department of State.
"We would support it from that point forward," Chilton says. "Language is very important. An opportunity like Mandarin really opens doors for these students."
The mentor's mentor
First arriving in the United States in Washington D.C. for a day of training, Aihua Yu made contact with her program bridge, Mingus Union High School science teacher Sandra Upite.
Upite, who also serves as the school's TCLP mentor teacher, says that Yu "brings a global perspective" to both students and the community.
"It's a great opportunity for students to learn the language and the culture," Upite says. "The more people understand other cultures, there's more growth.
Nǐ hǎo. Wǒ jiāo
On the first day of school, nine students showed up for in Aihua Yu's Chinese class.
"I was surprised more people didn't take it," Devon Howard says.
Yu's first goal in the class was to get her students interested in learning Chinese.
"Then they can speak the words," Yu says. "If they can speak it, maybe they'll want to come to China."
So Yu taught her students a few simple phrases to say, then to write. Say them in Chinese, write them in both English and Chinese.
Nǐ hǎo means "hello." Wǒ jiāo means "I am." So "Nǐ hǎo. Wǒ jiāo Devon" is how Devon would introduce himself.
Teaching both Chinese and English
For the past 16 years, Aihua Yu has taught English in her native China, so it's almost ironic that Yu teaches Chinese this year in America. Excited to be here, Yu says her family is "supportive" of her one-year assignment away from home.
Yu uses Skype to talk with her 7-year-old daughter Dora each day, as well as her husband Jin Ming when he is not working. But the 15-hour time difference between nations is not easy for communication.
"My daughter will come here in November, maybe my husband," Yu says. "That will help me stay here. I'm lucky."
Exchange teachers such as Aihua Yu aren't just teaching Chinese to American teens. They're also bonding with their students, their fellow teachers and members of the community by sharing similar experiences, some having taken place 10,000 miles apart.
Yu says she would like to "establish a Chinese club" on campus as a sister club to the English club that exists at her school back in China.
When Yu returns to her home in Dalian, in northeast coastal China, she'll be able to continue teaching English to her Chinese students with a first-hand familiarity of the American culture.
In the short time she has been in Arizona, Yu has begun to learn about American culture. There's a Beatles poster in her classroom - and she now knows the names of the members.