KOKOMO, Ind. — When Harlee Phillips stepped off the plane in Beijing, she could not speak one word of Mandarin.
She navigated the city with the help of a taxi driver, showing him her map with a few written phrases, to find Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU).
Just a few months later, Phillips, a nursing student at Indiana University Kokomo, could find her way around Beijing with ease, and could order food, ask for directions, and use public transportation.
“Going out into the world has made a big difference in my life,” she said. “I’m more confident in myself, which will make me a more confident nurse. I have really grown as a person. I always had been shy and kept to myself. Now I notice I’m so much more outgoing, and my communication skills have improved by 100 percent.”
The Kokomo resident received a $10,000 Study in China Scholarship from the Chinese Scholarship Council and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), which covered her tuition, campus housing, health insurance, and travel and conference fees for the 2014-2015 school year.
Phillips first became interested in overseas study because of the IU Kokomo School of Nursing’s exchange program with South Korea. She made friends with exchange students from Jesus University and Sungshin University, and visited them in their country on her own. Later she returned to the Asian country with IU Kokomo faculty and students.
She knew from that experience that she wanted to immerse herself in another culture, to become a better medical professional.
“As a nurse, you work with vulnerable people,” she said. “Because of the melting pot of cultures our country is, there are going to be communication problems with patients. By reaching out into another country, I can understand my future patients better, because I know what it is like to not be able to express my needs. As I nurse, I can use my experience to treat patients in that circumstance better, because I know what it feels like.”
BLCU students come from all over the world, and instruction begins in English. Within a month, most classes are taught completely in Mandarin. She lived in an international dorm, with a roommate from Japan. There were very few American students, she added, and many of her classmates were interested in making friends with her to practice American English, rather than the more formal British English they learned at home.
Her roommate had studied Mandarin previously, which helped her acclimate.
“The teachers and other students around us on campus speak English, but around campus there were stores, small restaurants and cafés, where most of the employees did not speak English,” Phillips said. “It probably took me three months before I had enough skill I could get anything I needed to do done. I could order food, I could use the public transportation by myself, I could do just about anything I needed to.”
Students attended classes four hours a day, five days a week, learning to read and understand 20 to 30 characters a day, to get to an intermediate level of about 2,000 to 3,000 by the end of the year.
She was pleased to realize how much she had learned after seven months, when her father came for a two-week visit, and she was able to serve as his tour guide.
“My language skills were quite good, and I could take him to see everything he wanted to see,” she said. “I knew Beijing like the back of my hand by then.”
When not in class, she traveled around Beijing with her classmates, to practice using the language and to see the culture in person. She spent Chinese New Year with a local family, and saw many of the country’s most famous sites, including the Great Wall.
Living in a city of approximately 20 million people was a huge adjustment after growing up in Kokomo, she said, noting that the state of Indiana’s population is less than half of that of Beijing.
After completing the academic year, Phillips visited her roommate’s family in Japan, and then met friends in South Korea before returning home. She and her father traveled to Indonesia and Malaysia, and she prepared to return for her senior year at IU Kokomo.
She took a year after returning to acclimate to the United States, and to review what she had previously learned in nursing school, to be sure she was ready to finish strong and graduate in May 2017.
Phillips was surprised by the reverse culture shock, finding it hard to readjust to American food, and life in a small city.
“The hardest thing was, I couldn’t believe how much my ears were ringing because of the quiet,” she said.
School of Nursing faculty and students have been helpful as she returns to campus. Her previous cohort graduated, so she’s made new friends and met new classmates.
“The faculty have been so supportive of me,” she said. “I can’t express how kind they’ve been to me, and how much they’ve done to get me back to where I was before I left for this adventure.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.