ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s more than 6,500 miles from New Mexico to Beijing, the capital of China, but an international exchange program helped bridge that distance for an Albuquerque student in a very special way this summer.
Recent Cottonwood Classical School graduate Sage Herrick was one of a small group of U.S. teens chosen to visit China in late July to foster better understanding between the two countries.
The trip was hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and funded by the Beijing-based Yihai Education Group, for 12 students – all either Presidential Scholars or Intel finalists – who were selected through a highly competitive process.
Herrick, 18, was named a 2016 Presidential Scholar, one of two from New Mexico. Growing up in the tiny northern New Mexico town of Santa Cruz near Española and later Albuquerque, Herrick has long been interested in the foreign relations aspect of politics, and China in particular.
“China was fascinating to me because a lot of Americans have a very poor attitude towards China – a little scared of it – don’t really understand how it functions; and I wanted to move past that,” said Herrick in an interview after she returned.
The two-week trip July 12-29 was her first exposure to international travel. The six boys and six girls in her group had a challenging itinerary that included a stay in Beijing, flying to Guiyang, about 1,000 miles to the southwest, and on to the cities of Beichuan and Chengdu.
“They were very busy. The goal is to give them the broadest representation in two weeks, from very official outings to cultural and social experiences,” said Kathy Thompkins, CEO of Yihai North America in New York.
Herrick’s most memorable day was in Beijing when they visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square is a large square in the center of the city that contains the Great Hall of the People, the mausoleum of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and was the site of political protest demonstrations in 1989. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace from the early 15th century to the early 20th century.
“That (experience) was definitely very eye opening,” said Herrick, adding that she appreciated being able to get the Chinese perspective on many current issues.
During their time in Beijing, Herrick and the other U.S. students visited schools established by the Yihai Educational Group where they learned some martial arts and tried their hand at calligraphy.
Another highlight of the trip was their visit to Beichuan. The city was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake that struck in 2008. The group toured the Memorial Museum and afterward danced around a bonfire with children of their host families.
“It was a wonderful way to end a tragic and eye-opening visit because it reminded us of the ephemeral nature of life and how the human spirit can conquer tragedy,” Herrick wrote, describing the experience.
Herrick and the other students stayed with host families in each location. She was intrigued by some of the misconceptions her Chinese hosts had about American women. In many cases they were convinced that American women ate a lot of bread. Herrick said her hosts were worried they might not have enough bread for their guest.
She also experienced many food items not often found in the U.S.
“I won a little award for the most adventurous eater,” Herrick said. Her eating adventures included “chicken feet, the intestines of several animals and fish heads.”
Her hosts were mostly only aware of U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles. Eager to expose them to the culture of New Mexico and the Southwest, she brought gifts such as turquoise jewelry, Hopi sand paintings and small Navajo rugs.
“It was cool for them to see the Southwest side of the country,” Herrick said.
This fall, Herrick is bound for Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., where she will study mechanical engineering. After her experiences this summer, she hopes to find ways to connect her twin interests in engineering and foreign relations by pursuing a minor in foreign relations.
The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which hosted the trip, is a nonprofit organization that promotes understanding between the two countries. The Yihai Education Group is part of a global company involved in real estate development, education, property management and fitness centers. In addition to supporting the U.S. China Student Leaders Exchange, the Yihai Education Group has established several schools in China.