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Great Wall to Mt. Abe

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By MEGAN GAMBINO

LINCOLN — After thunderstorms subsided Tuesday morning, a group of high school students and educators from South China and Vermont left from the base of Battell Trail to hike to the top of Lincoln’s Mount Abraham. Their mission on a small scale was to reach the top.

But on a grander scale, they hoped to bridge a cultural divide, through a shared interest in the environment.

The 12 Chinese students, four Chinese educators, three Vermont students and two Vermont educators are all participants of Green Across the Pacific, an intensive three-week summer program that teams American and Chinese teenagers to study natural resource management and environmental leadership.

This year’s program, which began on July 16, has addressed topics such as wind power, invasive plants, mercury pollution and transportation issues, and the group’s travels have taken them all across central and northern Vermont. Stops in Addison County included a lesson on turning cow manure into electricity at the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, and visits to Middlebury’s OMYA quarry and Shoreham’s Champlain Orchards, Millborne Farms and Golden Russet Farm.

The mission of the Shoreham-based Green Across the Pacific program is to improve cultural and environmental understanding between the United States and Asia. In the words of Peter Lynch, the program’s founder and executive director, the goal can be stated even more simply.

“It comes down to peace and prosperity. We have to get our relationship with China right because there is no corner of the world that will not be affected by China’s growth,” Lynch said.

According to Lynch, one of the most important questions facing this generation is the question of how to maintain both a healthy environment and a healthy economy, and Lynch wants students to come away from his program with an appreciation for the complexity of this challenge.

“We want them to look at a variety of legitimate perspectives and come to their own conclusions,” he said. “We’d love to have them contribute to policy in Vermont and China.”

Kiley Briggs, a University of Vermont junior who works for Green Across the Pacific, went to China in the summer of 2004 with the program, which works as a cultural exchange with the host country alternating each year. Having made that trip, Briggs feels he is in a better position to view environmental issues from the perspective of more people around the world.

“In China, I was able to see how things work a world away,” Briggs said. “And if you can see each end of the spectrum, you can really see the full picture.”

Lynch, formerly a high school biology teacher at Fair Haven Union High School, founded Green Across the Pacific in 1996 when he took a group of his students to Guangzhou, China, to study field biology. This trip served as his introduction to the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, known locally as Hua Shi Fu Zhong or HSFZ. Lynch began to implement an exchange with the Guangzhou school in 1997 and incorporated Green Across the Pacific as a nonprofit organization in 2001.

“It used to be an apprenticeship with biologists, but now it’s become something much larger than that,” said Lynch.

At first the program’s participants were Lynch’s own high school students. But since retiring from teaching, he has recruited high schoolers from around western Vermont. Lynch writes to the guidance offices and science personnel at area high schools and makes visits to bolster interest.

In order to be considered for the program, Chinese and American students have to take part in a competitive application process administered by their home program or school. The Chinese students, all students at HSFZ, Guangzhou’s highest-ranked high school, are accepted based on their interest in biology, test scores and English proficiency. This year, 51 applied for just 12 spots. Vermont students have to provide a few essay responses and letters of reference and then interview with Lynch.

A serious academic interest is a prerequisite to the program because over the three weeks participants work in small groups on specific research projects, write position papers for publication or to show to policy makers, and present their findings at a capstone event. This year, the students will present their reports on Friday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. in the Alumni Auditorium at Champlain College in Burlington.

Lynch expects that with another three to five years of name building Green Across the Pacific will gain substantial credibility as a cultural exchange program. But the program has already seen some growth. In addition to meeting with field scientists and farmers, the students and educators are now interacting with the business world, and the program will reap more benefits and recognition from its newly established affiliations with Champlain College and Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center.

Currently, Chinese students involved in Green Across the Pacific stay with host families, mostly in Burlington, but organizers hope to provide housing through Champlain College in the future, with students staying in dorms on weekdays and host families on weekends.

Green Across the Pacific attempts to forge a cross-cultural bond, using science as a common language, but organizers bear in mind that the three-week program is ultimately more a cultural than an academic experience. Most of the Chinese students visiting the area this summer have never before been to the United States, let alone experience what it is like to live with an American family.

“It’s a very nice place,” 16-year-old Sugar Xiao said of Vermont. “The atmosphere is fresh; there are lots of trees and beautiful views. It’s a peaceful state, and everyone has been friendly.”

But Xiao proves that while the joint study may bring the Chinese and American teenagers closer together as far as environmental policy is concerned, it will not dissolve all differences between the students from Guangzhou and Vermont.

“I could be here a few months, maybe a year, but beyond that, it is too reticent,” said Xiao, who admitted to preferring the faster pace of Guangzhou.

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