David Buch’s first time abroad came with an honor he shares with only a few other students nationwide this year.
The Beckley native was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar this year, one of only 141 other graduating high school seniors to receive the honor from the U.S. Department of Education.
With that honor came a trip the Washington D.C. where he and other honorees met with First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
But perhaps an even greater honor for Buch came when he was chosen with just a dozen other scholars to go on a two and a half week trip to China, sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
Each year, the committee selects a dozen students who to go on the trip. And each year, China’s equivalent to the committee sends Chinese students on a trip to the United States.
“I think the overall idea is to promote a good dialogue between American students and Chinese students,” Buch, 18, said.
Buch, who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School, flew out of Charleston’s Yeager Airport to Chicago, before spending two days in San Francisco getting briefed on Chinese culture. Then the group flew to Beijing, touring historic sites around the country and making a stop in Sichuan, where an estimated 68,712 people died after a 2008 earthquake.
In an effort to promote understanding of American culture, Buch and the other American students met with Zhao Yumin, director of the department of North American and Oceanian Affairs and Fang Jun, a deputy director general in the Ministry of Education.
“These are potential future leaders of our countries in different fields,” said Joseph Weed, the director of communications for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. “It’s important that they’re familiar with and understand U.S.-China relations better.”
Buch said that education officials in China are particularly interested in reforming China’s college placement system, which places a great deal of emphasis on a single test score. In the United States, university officials take into account GPA and extra-curriculars as well as test scores.
“For 12 years, they focus on this test,” Buch said. “They’re worried about too much of a nose to the grindstone approach.”
Meeting with Chinese officials might’ve been a bit intimidating, but Buch said the officials tried to make students welcome.
“They definitely tried to promote a relaxed environment in what ways they could,” he said. “It was more of a back-and-forth rather than being talked to.”
Understanding the Chinese culture was a major takeaway for Buch, who had never been to the country, but has always been interested in its history.
He said that’s because China has a history dating back thousands of years and the people are unified. National goals are accomplished because of that unity.
“[Their history] helps explain why the one party system is effective,” Buch said. “Because people are willing to get behind ideas and work together.”
But China’s homogeneity often translates into limited choices, especially in non-fast food restaurants, he said.
“In China, if you’re not in a fast food restaurant, almost all of the restaurants serve traditional Chinese food,” Buch said.
Overall, he said the trip was a chance for Chinese officials to get a sense of American culture from a young person’s perspective.
“It’s not like we were going to solve a lot of problems while we were there,” he said. “But we helped explain positions and views from a kids’ perspective, and at the same time learned about their ideas and attitudes.”
Reach Jack Suntrup at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5100 or follow @jacksuntrup on Twitter.