Clara Marquardt graduated from WAB with the Class of 2010. She received a perfect 45 on her IB diploma, was named Confucius Scholar (WAB Valedictorian), and will be attending Cambridge University, England in 2012. Clara is from Germany and, in addition to German, also speaks fluent English and Chinese. What does a remarkable young woman like this do to celebrate her achievements? Why she takes a gap year between high school and university, of course, to work harder and learn more than she may have ever before.
In her years at WAB, Clara's interests included Economics, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. She also was very involved in WAB's work with the Tao Yuan local migrant school where she taught English on the weekends. The collaboration was well received and successful, eventually expanding to include sports programs at Tao Yuan as well. WAB students, including Clara, also devoted a considerable amount of time to fundraising for the school, and even negotiating construction contracts, in order to renovated walls, ceilings, and the playground which were all in need of significant repair. Unfortunately, this tremendous effort had a sad ending; Tao Yuan was demolished. "It was very sad. There was unrest in the area," remembers Clara, "It [the demolition] was overnight."
With a desirable Cambridge University acceptance in hand, Clara made the decision to take a gap year before heading to London. She didn't have a specific plan for the year at the time of her graduation from WAB, she just saw the gap year option as "a great opportunity." Clara was just 16 years old when she completed high school so felt in no rush to begin University. She had no concerns about being without a plan; "I had so many ideas. I was never afraid I wouldn't find something," Clara said confidently, "I only knew I wanted to stay in China."
The reason, she wanted to further her Chinese language skills through true immersion. Clara's father works with Siemens and lives in Dalian, China. The perfect immersion opportunity for Clara came through that connection. Clara decided to move to Dalian to live with her father and to take a job at Siemens, but not a white-collar job working close to her father. Clara opted for a position on the factory floor with the local Chinese workers.
"The workers did know who I was," explains Clara, as she didn't keep her father's connection a secret, "and I was nervous how they would accept me." But Clara quickly gained the trust and respect of her coworkers by diving right in to the job, picking up and moving boxes just like everyone else. Work on the factory floor was very different than Clara imagined. She expected monotonous, heavy labor work and grim workers, but the people were really energetic in the mornings and eager to get the machines started in the morning. "They looked particularly looked forward to the 10-minute break after lunch," she recalls, "during which they got to play basketball!"
This doesn't mean it wasn't hard work for a 16-year old high school graduate. "There were many, many days when I wanted to give up and run out of the factory," she told me, not because of any physical hardship, but mental hardship. The factory made parts for flow meters in other factories, chemical factories, and the workers never even see the final product that they are contributing. Not having any connection to or interest in the work itself made the job harder day after day, but Clara stuck with the work though through the first half of her gap year as promised. She turned out to be a solid worker on the factory floor; she remembers her fellow workers telling her that when she had been out sick for one week they had actually fallen behind in their work, missing her contribution. And though the factory workers were men and women closer to her parents' age than her own, Clara's excellent Chinese helped her integrate and she developed some close relationships. As she came to know the workers better, the reality of their lives was became clearer. When she looks back now, "it makes me very reflective. If they were to talk about their own lives, they would be very unhappy, but they are not. They find happiness through the better goals and opportunities they see for their children, the next generation." Clara will always value the time she spent on the factory floor; she thinks about the friends she made there and how much she learned from the experience, probably the least of which, in the end, was improving her Chinese.
At the completion of her factory floor commitment Clara still had many months left in her gap year. She took one month to study for the HanYu ShuiPing Kaoshi (HSK), the Chinese (Mandarin) Ranking Examination, the Chinese language equivalent to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Clara placed at the highest Level 8. Her next idea was to contact Chinese Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in search of an unpaid internship, but she received less than welcoming responses. Then she remembered the WAB efforts with local migrant schools and wrote an email to Director Robert Landau and Director of Development and Community Relations, Trish Smith. Clara's timing couldn't have been better.
"Over the previous few months, the Jiashan Jingxi Partnership Board at WAB had been exploring the idea of sending teachers to spend weeks or months teaching at the Jiashan School," says Robert, "Clara became our first volunteer!" Initially Clara spent several weeks at WAB gathering materials and observing classes. Clara then departed for the Gansu Providence to teach English, or to do any other jobs the schools would find useful, at both the Jiashan primary school and at a local high school. Having requested a home stay experience, Clara lived with a local family while in Gansu.
In the seven and a half weeks that she spent in Gansu, Clara is the first to admit that "no one's English improved." However, the students learned innumerable lessons from the Unit of Inquiry (UOI) that Clara introduced called "My Community, My Village: Through My Eyes." In this Unit, students are taught to report from their own perspectives on their daily lives, focusing on the following questions: What are the positive things in your community?, What do you have in your village?, and Why do you stay here? Nine Grade 6 students participated in the Unit.
The students discussed the topics, wrote on the topics, and conducted interviews in their village. Each student was trained on and given a video camera to bring home and use to document their life. Just the opportunity to have the use of such equipment was extraordinary for these students, many of whom have never even owned a photograph. Each student had to conduct three twenty-question interviews; students had to make up their own questions and their subjects could not all be family members. The end product of the UOI is one book of photos and autobiographical text by each student documenting each's community, village, and life. In a few short weeks, the nine students had a wonderful experience, accomplished a tremendous amount of work, and learned much about themselves and their communities. "They were so eager. They enjoyed it and never complained that it was too much." By the end of the project, Clara could see that the students had internalized the implicit lessons on having a personal opinion and sharing your own story in your own voice.
For any students or parents wondering about the usefulness or purpose of a gap year, Clara Marquardt shows just how meaningful the time can be. Throughout her gap year, Clara kept a blog about her experiences. You can check out Clara's blog at: http://blog.sina.com.cn/claramarquardt. As WAB Director Robert Landau encourages us all, "Please have a look and get to know this amazing WAB Alumni who clearly exemplifies our Mission and Core Values. We hope future alumni will follow in her footsteps."