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November 24, 2014

Round trip: Back in Niskayuna, China's Li Yanan reflects on exchange student experience

picture from Li Yanan's visit
From left, Li Yanan, her host Dad Bob Winchester, and her husband, Bai Jiang.

The lessons that Li Yanan learned in Niskayuna have helped her on more than half of the world's continents. In mid-November, she returned to Niskayuna and the United States for the first time since 1997-98, when she was among the first group of Chinese students to spend a year in the U.S. on an AFS exchange.

Back at Niskayuna High School, Li fondly recalled hallmarks of her American high school experience, including her locker and helping "Sound of Music" cast members get into costume and on stage. She also talked about how exchange trip had opened her eyes and shaped her life.

After leaving Niskayuna, Li finished high school in China and ultimately earned a Master's degree in finance in Paris. She has worked for a French consulting firm in Europe, Algeria in northern Africa, and China, being involved in projects such as the famed Beijing National Stadium built for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"Being in Niskayuna was an amazing experience in my life. I opened myself to the world," Li said.

Her host family was the Winchesters - former district Health Education Director and current Board member Bob, his wife Susan, and their daughters. They have stayed in touch with Li over the years, and have visited her and her family in China.

So, when business brought Li and her husband Bai Jiang to New York City this fall, there was no question they would make a stop in Alplaus and at Niskayuna High School.

While here, she talked about how coming to upstate New York as a teenager set the state for the work she has done and she has accomplished since.

"It was a totally different world than what I expected," she said. "You hear things, you see things on TV but you just have to experience them for yourself. You have to learn how to appreciate other people's points of view. You can see that they don't think the way you used to think."

In China, Li and Jiang have drawn on their experiences to help others re-adjust to China after spending time abroad. They have created a club where people who are returning from overseas learning and business experiences can find support and make connections. This fills an important need in a country where rapid growth and development are contributing to dramatic cultural shifts.

It is not surprising that Li is spending time helping her fellow citizens and her country.

"When Li Yanan first came to Alplaus, I asked her, 'What do you want to do while you are in the United States,'" Bob Winchester recalled. "And she said, 'Dad, I want to do great things for my people and my country.'"

"I still do," she added, all these years later.