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Towson students expect a world of difference in summer trip to China

Four Towson High School students were among a contingent from Baltimore County leaving Sunday afternoon, May 20, for a two-month exchange at the Tie Yi School in Xi'an, China.

There, the Baltimore County Public Schools students will put their knowledge of Chinese language to the test — and enjoy an experience that no amount of class time can prepare them for.

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"I don't know what to expect, but I think that's what I'm excited for, going somewhere where I don't know exactly what I'm going to see and what I'm going to feel and everything I'm going to experience," Hannah Voelker, 15, of Towson, said last Friday as she prepared for the trip. "I think that's the cool thing about it."

The four Towson High students — Voelker, Valerie Pasion, 17, of Parkville, Peter De Guzman, 15, of Timonium, Andy Phillips, 17, of Towson — will travel with three teachers and 23 other students from Dulaney, Hereford, Owings Mills, Patapsco, Perry Hall, Randallstown and Woodlawn high schools for two months of sight-seeing and studying on the other side of the world.

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Local students from Dulaney participating are Natalie Baker, Alexandra Delanois, Sarah Fisher, Jenny Ingliss, Joseph Pezzulla, Aishwarya Raveesh, Kyra Twohy and Elena Konstant.

The trip is a return engagement of sorts — this past year the students played host to Chinese exchange students during their visit to the county.

De Guzman and Voelker, both sophomores, and with Phillips, a junior, are in the class, Chinese 4, at Towson High School, and are excited to test what they've learned in the most genuine of environments.

But Pasion, a junior, has just eight weeks of Chinese at CCBC under her belt — she just began taking Chinese this year, and joked that she knows just enough to tell people she's American and doesn't speak Chinese — so the language barrier concerned her a bit.

"I'm both excited and nervous, but most people there speak English, so I should be OK," she said.

"I know that all the people that came here were really nice," Pasion said. "They were all so sweet, and they connected with us, so I'm not scared about the people. I'm just nervous about communicating with the people."

Pasion and De Guzman each had a Chinese exchange student living with them earlier this year, while Hannah hosted two. Phillips hosted one last year.

"I almost consider (my exchange students) like my brothers now because I got so close to them," Voelker said. "I'm really glad that I'll have someone that I know who can show me around."

For Phillips, one trip to China simply wasn't enough. He went with the school system's delegation to China last year, and said he's the first person to make the trip a second time.

"I'm in love with China, I guess," he said. "Just being there is exciting."

With a trip already under his belt, Phillips understands the language barrier first hand. At school, he said the Chinese students take compulsory English classes, so communication wasn't an issue there.

"But out in the markets, it's pretty bad," he said.

Otherwise, he said the experience is much different than how it was portrayed at the pre-trip meetings.

"They said at the program meeting that it's a lot of scary, communist country stuff, but it's really not," Phillips said.

Voelker added that friends who have been on the trip before said "it's a different world, but it's not anything they tell you it is."

"Everyone who has gone has told me it's really fun," she said.

All of the local students understand what they're giving up to take the trip. They had to squeeze in all of their final exams before Sunday's departure — leading to some instances where they were being tested on what classmates would learn before the final.

De Guzman will be missing spring football workouts, and Voelker will miss her summer swim season. Pasion will miss her sister, and all of them will be leaving behind Facebook.

But Phillips, sage in his experience, knows what they'll all actually miss.

"The weather," he said. " It's a lot nicer than it is over there. It's like 110 degrees every day."

Despite the heat, Phillips said he has a simple goal for his second go-around in China.

"I'm going to try and do everything that I didn't do last time that I can within two months," he said. "Two months is not enough time."

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