Park City residents Val Chin and Shirley Smith were recently recognized by the Park City Council for their contributions to the Park City community through a student exchange program with China.
Val Chin started visiting China with her in-laws in the ‘80s. Chin says Shirley Smith also had a relationship with the Beijing People’s Friendship Association. After a trip to China in 1991 with friends, Chin says Smith initiated the idea for something more than a tourist experience.
“On the way back, Shirley was sitting next to me on the plane, and she said, 'You know, Val, do you want to just continue to do these kinds of trips, or do you think we could go deeper with our relationship with China?'" Chin said. "It didn't take me long to think, oh, well, we could go deeper."
Chin was on the Park City School Board at the time, and the district was participating in an exchange program with Russia. Chin says she and Smith modeled the China program after it, and it took two years of negotiations with the China Ministry of Education and the Beijing Municipal Government to organize the first exchange in 1993. Chin says it was difficult for high school students to travel from China, and for the first couple years of the program, the Park City community raised money for both the Park City students and Chinese students to participate.
"If you were a musician or an athlete or something like that, you could leave, because the government would pay for you to go to various countries to show off your skills," Chin said. "But there was no means for just a regular high school student to leave the country, so it was really a big deal to be able to negotiate this."
Park City students visit China for about 14 days, travelling through Beijing to Shanghai. They also hike part of the Great Wall. Chin says the program is just enough time that it provides what she calls a “broad brush stroke” of an experience.
"It gives them enough knowledge and information to know if they want to go back or not, and many of them have gone back," Chin said. "In college, they've gone and they've spent semesters there. Some have worked there. So it does give them an idea if they want to be involved in China or not."
Former Park City Mayor Dana Williams worked with city staff and council to recognize Chin and Smith through a resolution. Williams went to Beijing with the exchange program more than a decade ago.
"We had done a little something when I was in office, but the fact that this has gone now to 27 years was just phenomenal," Williams said. "And Shirley is not in good health, and I didn't want people to forget for a second the importance of what these two had accomplished."
The program carries on under the leadership of Park City High School Mandarin Chinese teacher David Knell, along with Park City resident Eyee Hsu. Chin says she’s thrilled the tradition can continue.