For my Princeternship, I spent three days visiting Ying Hua International School, a Chinese immersion school for pre-school through second grade students. After this experience, I am now more certain than ever that I would like to one day establish something similar. Nevertheless, if my time at Ying Hua taught me that running such a school can be rewarding, it also revealed the many, many obstacles and challenges that come along with this kind of endeavor.
The school, located in Princeton, was only a short drive north on highway 27. When Erin (another Princetern) and I arrived, we were a little surprised to discover that the school is actually a church. In fact, many of the students were rehearsing in the sanctuary for Chinese New Year activities as we entered. We were greeted by our host, Kristin Epstein ‘97. Kristin was formerly an engineer and currently works in marketing and development for Ying Hua. She gave us a tour of and a brief introduction to the school. Although the classrooms have other uses during church services, aside from a few signs outside each room, it was quite obvious that learning in Chinese was taking place inside them, as you may notice from some of the pictures. Kristin explained that Ying Hua rents the building from the church during the week but will soon need a more permanent space as they expand to sixth grade.
For most of the first day, we chatted with Kristin about the school’s history, funding, and other logistics. From our conversation, it became clear that managing a school at any stage requires a strong support system financially and professionally. Ying Hua is a private school, which means tuition comprises a large part of the operating budget. However, before a school exists, people have to buy into the idea and some capital has to be invested. Without the significant contributions made by donors, starting Ying Hua would have been impossible. We also talked to Natalie, the principal. She echoed the importance of personal and professional connections and told me about useful opportunities to learn more about education. Both Natalie and Kristin were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to establish Ying Hua as a charter school. It was unbelievable how much opposition they faced from local schools and government, which ultimately led to not acquiring a building and thus failing to obtain the charter. They each acknowledged how onerous their work is but did not seem to regret choosing it.
The second day we got to see the students a little more as they continued rehearsing for the new year performance. I was amazed at how well they spoke Chinese. Bear in mind that more than half of the students do not have parents who speak Chinese at home. Furthermore, Kristin explained that they use an inquiry-based curriculum, and I could not help but feel a little envious that students not only learn in Chinese but have quite a bit of autonomy in choosing what they want to study. The teachers do all of this and still manage to cover the standards mandated for public schools as well. Although I personally, do not place extreme importance on the state curriculum, Kristin explained that some parents feel more comfortable knowing there is a higher authority of standards and that their children would be able to function in non-Chinese academic settings if they left the school. This is actually an interesting point because before first grade, the students are taught completely in Chinese, which means they might be unfamiliar with some important terms if they did leave the school before being taught in English.
On the last day, we went to Princeton Senior Resource Center to watch the students perform for Chinese New Year. The senior citizens, many of whom were Chinese, simply adored them. Even though I had seen the students rehearse, I was still quite impressed seeing a more complete form of the show. After the performance, Kristin invited Erin and me to the Nassau Club for lunch where we socialized with other alumni from various years, which really enhanced the experience.
The Princeternship turned out to be much more than I expected. I knew we would get to shadow an alum and observe a school, but I did not expect it to feel as natural as it did. Right from the beginning, Kristin and the Ying Hua staff made us feel as if we belonged there. I recommend this Princeternship to anyone interested in the operations of education. It gave me more perspective about my career goals and life after Princeton.