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Undergraduate appreciates his award to study in China

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
January 25, 2018

Ray O’Donnell hails from the petite town of Millersburg, Ohio: population 3,000; location, Amish country.

So when he found himself on a semester abroad last summer, inching through the streets of Shanghai, shoulder to shoulder with some of the 24 million residents, exhilaration filled him. The experience whetted his appetite for more.

His appetite might just be satisfied, thanks to the Fulbright-Hays Award in Chinese Immersion he received from the University of Massachusetts.

The opportunity couldn’t be more appropriate for the junior majoring in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and minoring in Chinese.

Starting in February, he will spend five months in China, taking courses at Shaanxi Normal University, working as an intern in the Xi’an High Tech Industrial Zone, studying Mandarin and more.

He and his cohort will volunteer in Daxing District of Beijing at the nonprofit Dandelion School, the only local middle school for children from low-income migrant families.

Only 11 students from around the United States were chosen for the immersion experience honor.

"I see in Ray a very determined and serious student,” said Mario DeGrandis, graduate teaching associate who wrote a recommendation for O’Donnell to the Fulbright-Hays committee. He was the class assistant for the traditional Chinese culture course that O’Donnell took autumn semester.

“He was always well organized and prepared for class, and eager to learn more about any linguistic and cultural aspect of China we were studying.”

If DeGrandis thought O’Donnell was a natural for the award, O’Donnell was surprised to receive it. “For a guy who only just transferred from the Mansfield Regional Campus, I think this is an astounding accomplishment,” he said.

Teaching around the world

O’Donnell’s career goal is to emulate his savvy, globetrotting Uncle Russ, who taught English in half a dozen countries around the world, spending several years in each.

“From the time I was a little kid, hearing his stories about teaching in Japan or Thailand, Lebanon or Morocco, it was inspiring,” O’Donnell said. “I want to teach English abroad and learn about the world.”

O’Donnell’s interest in all things international was also fueled when, during the summer of 2016, he interned with the Florida Disney College Program. He worked at an Epcot store called Mouse Gear.

“There were interns from all over the world, and the ones I became ridiculously close to were from China,” he said. “They became my big Disney family."

Ray O'Donnell in Jiangsu Province, China
In addition, when he transferred to Ohio State’s Columbus Campus after two years at Mansfield, he enjoyed living in the international dorm, Morrison Tower, where he made many friends from other countries.

Thanks to these connections, including with teachers from last summer’s study abroad, he plans many reunions when he next touches down in Shanghai.

Inspired to teach

other inspiration to teach comes from his parents. Both are educators in Holmes County, Ohio. His dad teaches physical education; his mom is a school counselor.

O’Donnell enjoyed his semester-long First Education Experience Program (FEEP). He assisted a sixth-grade teacher at Lexington Eastern Elementary School in Lexington, Ohio, while living in Buckeye Village Apartments near the Mansfield Regional Campus.

“I read out loud to the class, helped with grading papers or reading the classes’ writing diaries,” O’Donnell said. “In doing individual and group work, I felt very close to the students. (Lexington Eastern Elementary) reminded me of my own school (when I was a child) so it felt closer to home.”

Autumn semester, he took Introduction to Second Language Acquisition with Associate Professor Youngjoo Yi. “She was awesome, inspirational and motivating,” he said. “I appreciated learning about the different theories, especially the sociocultural theory, and how to cater to those with different ways of learning second languages. She kept everyone engaged and excited.”

TESOL has a smaller cohort of learners compared to other education programs, and O’Donnell said he and his peers are “pretty passionate about it.”

For his upcoming travels, he looks forward to becoming a bridge between cultures, the goal of the Fulbright-Hays Award.

The fish-that-got-away story

One reason O’Donnell wants to return to Shanghai involves a lost fish. It started when he was in Shanghai last summer during his study abroad. He planned to make a dinner to impress a young woman.

O’Donnell was about to purchase the last live fish that he could recognize, a salmon, at Walmart (yes, Shanghai has Walmart) when another shopper intervened.

“It’s the end of Ramadan. Can I have that fish?” the man said to O’Donnell.

“No, I’m hungry. I’m going to cook it to for my girl,” O’Donnell said.

“Please, let me buy it. If I get you into this bar for free, will you let me have the fish? The bar is pretty expensive.”

O’Donnell didn’t believe him but relented. To his astonishment, the man turned out to be a PhD student from another university who promoted exclusive clubs as a part-time job.

O’Donnell and his friends from Disney visited some of the most exquisite, elegant nightclubs in the world for free. O’Donnell had been in bars but never a club, especially since he’d just turned 21 that summer.

“There’s no place like these clubs in Millersburg, or Berlin, Ohio, where I used to work in a pizza shop,” he said. “Or even in Columbus.”

O’Donnell is eager to take off for China. “It’s a sharp contrast, to be drawn to some of the biggest cities in the world and the small town of Berlin in Amish country,” he said. “It’s all an adventure.”


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