From the moment they landed in Raleigh, 20 Chinese students and educators experienced the true meaning of “Southern hospitality”. They’d traveled to North Carolina for the 2016 Special Olympics Global Unified Youth Exchange (GUYE), a week-long program that united students from two diverse cultures around a shared commitment to inclusive collaboration, authentic engagement and furthering awareness of Special Olympics in their schools and communities.
“Special Olympics North Carolina was thrilled to welcome our new friends from China to the Tar Heel state,” said Keith L. Fishburne, Special Olympics NC President/CEO. “The entire week was focused on bringing them together with North Carolina students who exemplify the power of youth leadership within our movement so the two groups could learn from each other.”
And learn from each other they did. Even in those first moments at the airport, the two groups mingled with ease, teaching each other important phrases, posing for photos and becoming fast friends.
“Having a chance to interact with the delegation from China has been one of my favorite high school experiences so far!” said one Apex Friendship High School student who welcomed the group to North Carolina.
Much of the week was spent learning about what Unified Champion Schools, a program that brings youth with and without intellectual disabilities together through sports and education to create school communities of acceptance and respect, look like in North Carolina. The Chinese delegation heard firsthand the power of UCS programming from schools in Wake County such as Sanderson High School, Wake Forest High School and East Garner Magnet Middle School. The inspiration gained will help all GUYE participants implement inclusive programming at their schools.
“I loved being able to collaborate with the youth leaders from China on our projects! Even though our cultures are very different, we had so much in common with our peers from China. I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together,” said Rachel Lamm, a member of the SONC Youth Activation Council.
For many, a highlight of the week was a trip to Lenovo, a Chinese multinational technology company with headquarters in Beijing, China, and Morrisville, NC, to learn about multi-cultural leadership.
“Our time at Lenovo allowed the youth leaders to gain valuable knowledge and insight on strategies to be successful with multi-cultural collaboration. From discussing technology to assist with regular communication, to understanding the barriers with time zones – the information learned will be critical as the students continue to collaborate in the coming year,” said Kaitlyn Smith, director of the GUYE.
But the week wasn’t all work and no play! Whether it was playing Unified Flag Football with North Carolina State University students, tackling a corn maze on Halloween or dancing the night away at the 2016 SONC Fall Tournament, GUYE participants had a lot of fun. Throughout it all, the students from both countries bonded quickly, demonstrating the power that Special Olympics has to transcend cultures.
“My favorite part of this week was seeing how easily we come together from different countries. We sit together, we play unified together, and we learn from each other. This week has been life-changing,” said Jiachen Shui, a youth leader from China.
All the new friends hated to say “see you later” at the end of the week, but luckily their journey together is just beginning. As they take all they’ve learned back home, the future looks very bright for more inclusive communities.