When Gainesville High School graduate William Morris began his college career at Harvard University, he expected to simply be a student.
However, the college sophomore had the opportunity to be a teacher this summer. It had one catch — he would have to traverse the globe to do it.
Morris agreed, starting an unforgettable journey with the help of two Harvard University programs in China.
The first program immersed Morris in the language and culture of the country. In the second one, he was a seminar leader, teaching some of the top high school students in China about American culture.
Morris attended Harvard Beijing Academy for the first nine weeks.
“I studied a year’s worth of Chinese for credit,” he said. “We were not allowed to speak any English in or out of class.”
On a typical weekday, students have four hours of class in the morning and a 50-minute one-on-one conversation session with one of the teachers in the afternoon, according to Harvard’s description of the program.
“He learned 80 Chinese words a day in the first program. It was quite intense,” William’s mother, Renee Hand Morris, said.
But Morris was not relegated to classroom work and teaching. Following the afternoon conversation session, students could study, participate in extracurricular activities or explore different places.
One requirement was still in place, though. Students still had to speak Chinese the entire time.
“Throughout the program I got to do a ton of things,” Morris said. “The most unusual part of it was not speaking any English while I was there. I didn’t know much of the language at all when I went there.”
During his time in China, Morris went to numerous art markets, saw the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden Palace and took an excursion to a seaside town as part of his Social Study trip for the program.
According to the program’s website, academy students spend their fifth week visiting a location of their choice and studying the area’s culture and characteristics.
“I went to a place called Huangshan in Anhui Province,” Morris said. “It literally means Yellow Mountain, and it’s a rural town near the sea.”
During the nine weeks, Morris learned a week’s worth of language each day in the classroom, which proved useful when he switched roles from student to teacher. Although he taught in English, his new knowledge of the Chinese language helped him in the classroom. Morris taught the two-week class as part of the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China.
“The second program was in Shanghai and lasted two weeks,” Renee Hand Morris said. “William taught a minicourse to outstanding Chinese high school students. Evidently the Chinese culture as a whole is crazy about Harvard.”
The added bonus was Morris was allowed to choose his materials, topics and lessons on any subject he desired.
“I ended up teaching, in English, a class on the merit of different cultures in America itself,” he said. “I focused mainly on the South and Northeast because that’s what I know best, but I also covered the Midwest, Northwest and other regions.”
He pulled his ideas from a book he read that analyzed the different cultures in America. He thought it would be ideal to teach about his culture while learning about another.
“For one thing, I am an American, and many people in China I think have a skewed perspective of America, but not in a bad way at all,” Morris said. “A lot of people see a bunch of positives and not many negatives, on a personal level with everyday life.”
His relaxed demeanor and average-man persona surprised his students since the country holds Harvard to a high standard. In fact, only seven students from China are admitted into Harvard while 21 to 25 students from Georgia alone are enrolled.
“They were kind of surprised that the seminar leaders, myself included, were imperfect,” Morris said. “They were surprised that I was not some kind of super genius, like if I stuttered or misplaced something.”
But Morris attempted to unravel their preconceived notions about Harvard as well as expose them to the culture of the northern United States. He revealed the variety of cultures in other regions of the United States, including places such as Gainesville.
“I wanted to teach them that America is a much more diverse place than they thought, like China is to many Americans,” Morris said. “I tried to give them a good impression of the South. I showed them Gainesville, and pictures of football.”
And while football is a favorite sport of Americans, Morris encountered a major Chinese basketball star.
During his stay in Shanghai, the college student met Yao Ming and conversed with him.
“I talked to him in person in Chinese,” Morris said. “I also ended up having to make a speech in front of everyone in the program, and I got into a Shanghai newspaper with about 35 million subscribers.”
Through his summer experiences and the inspiration of his high school Chinese teacher, Julia Zhu at Gainesville High, Morris developed an even deeper appreciation and passion for Chinese culture.
He also discovered the many similarities between the United States and China.
“I guess my favorite thing about being in China was kind of the realization that while I was so far away from home and so many things were different, I could still see a lot of similarities,” he said. “Like there are good people there, just like there are at home. I could see myself living or working in China, or being there in some capacity.”
However, China has many differences from the United States that surprised Morris. He said both nations have stark income inequalities, but the division is much more public in China.
“There would be beggars on the street, many times with a physical deformity,” Morris said. “And since China has only recently opened up to commerce with the West, most of the wealth today is relatively new. People are very flashy with the wealth they have acquired.”
Morris recalled a story about a club where if a man buys a $2,000 bottle of wine, the club shines a spotlight on him.
“And it’s not about the wine, it’s about people knowing how much money you have,” he said, noting his childhood resembled a major difference regarding finances. “My dad always taught me not to talk about money, and being flashy is not the case in Boston or in Atlanta or even in Gainesville.”
Despite the differences in culture, Morris still loves to study China and plans to continue immersing himself in the culture to prepare for a potential future overseas.
“I’m studying history and East Asian Studies and considering working and living there, but I’m considering taking a year off after this year and studying in Taiwan,” he said. “I don’t know if it will happen, and I will be graduating a year later, but the program is the best in the world and when you graduate you are fluent on Chinese on a business level.”