Teaching Chinese in America
Required class leads to fast-growing career for Ehren Fairfield '01
by MaryAlice Bitts Jackson
December 1, 2010
Ehren Fairfield '08 (third from right) marches with his honors-society students in a homecoming parade. Fairfield teaches four levels of Mandarin Chinese in Maryland's Charles Flowers High School. Photo courtesy of Fairfield.
If you want to tap into one of the fastest-growing areas of government or international business, you’ll be wise to learn a bit about China, notes Ehren Fairfield ’01.
“I tell my students that people are very impressed when they see [Chinese-language skills] on your resumé,” said Fairfield, a former East-Asian-studies major who teaches four levels of Mandarin Chinese at the Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Md. “If you’re competing with another person for a job—all other things being equal—you are much more likely to get a job in businesses and government if you know Chinese.”
While that’s certainly true—demand for Chinese-language speakers is, in fact, so high that the American government currently supports teaching positions in some public schools—it’s safe to say that Fairfield didn’t pursue this career path for strategic reasons. He simply loves his profession.
From Germany to China
Fairfield’s fascination with language—and his determination to make Chinese available to American high-schoolers—is rooted in his own high-school language-class experiences. As a freshman, he’d opted to learn German, but was dismayed when, two years later, the class was cancelled due to low enrollment.
“Spanish was my only option, then, and everyone seemed to take Spanish,” Fairfield said. “I wanted something a little out of the ordinary—I was hungry for a challenge.”
He was therefore delighted by the variety of foreign-language courses available at Dickinson. And although proficiency in Chinese was not a requirement for his major—Fairfield then planned to study medicine—he knew it would be challenging and interesting. So he decided to give it a try.
That class led to his decision to adopt a major in East Asian studies and study in Beijing during his junior year. With the help of Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Rae Yang, Fairfield lined up a second study-abroad experience in Beijing, taking the year after graduation to brush up on his language skills before applying to graduate programs in the field.
That experience was life-changing in two ways. In Beijing, Fairfield met Dickinson study-abroad student Kimberly Gabriel ’06, a fellow East-Asian-studies major who would later become his wife. (“It’s funny, because we met in Beijing, but our hometowns in Pennsylvania are only a couple of hours apart,” said Fairfield, who hailed from the Philadelphia area and whose wife-to-be then lived in Lancaster County.) The year abroad also helped him pinpoint his ultimate goal: to teach Chinese at the high-school level, offering students an option—and an edge—that he hadn’t had at their age.
Fueling student excitement
Fairfield’s passion for the subject is infectious. His students have deepened their understanding of Chinese language and culture by taking educational trips to China. They also have established a Chinese board-game club, further extending what they’ve learned in the classroom to their out-of-class lives.
Fairfield, who oversees the club and organizes the trips, also has established a chapter of the National Chinese Honors Society to recognize top-performing students, promote understanding of Chinese culture and advocate for Chinese language classes. This year, he and some of his 150 students have reached out to area middle-schoolers to educate them about Chinese culture and language.
It’s powerful knowledge, as demand for speakers of foreign languages continues to grow and China cements its position as one the world’s fastest-growing economic powers. Which is why Fairfield stresses that although his work keeps him busy—perhaps too busy, at times—it is also deeply satisfying. And, he adds, he is grateful to Dickinson for providing the education, inspiration and contacts that sparked his career.
“Dickinson provides an international setting that promotes a global view. I think that atmosphere—and help from my professors—contributed quite a lot to who I am, and where I am today,” he said.