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Visiting scholar from China hopes to become better teacher observing Creighton OT faculty

Fangfang ZhangFor the past six years, whenever delegations from Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions have traveled to Heibei Medical University in China, they’ve been greeted by Fangfang Zhang, a student and now faculty member in Heibei’s rehabilitation science program.

Given her command of English, however, Zhang’s quickly adopted unofficial title was that of interpreter for Creighton’s visitors. Now, Creighton is getting an opportunity to return the favor as Fang sits in on classes in the Department of Occupational Therapy and observes teaching methods in hopes of improving her own skills as a professor.

“I came here to learn how to be a better teacher,” said Zhang, who will spend three months at Creighton as a visiting scholar. “Through watching the instructors and talking with them, I hope to learn better methods and theories.”

The School of Pharmacy and Health Professions’ robust exchanges with universities in China have themselves translated into greater cultural and academic understanding on both sides of the Pacific. Each of the past three summers, Creighton has hosted a contingent of rehabilitation science students and faculty from select Chinese institutions and Creighton faculty have also made their way to China to learn more about traditional Chinese approaches to occupational therapy and physical therapy.

One of the most talked-about differences among Chinese students is the difference in the academic settings at their universities and what they encounter at Creighton. In China, the learning takes place almost entirely within the classroom in a lecture format.

At Creighton, the classroom is enlivened by spirited back-and-forth dialogues between professors and students, enhanced by a certain élan among the professors. There’s also a greater emphasis on extramural learning at the clinical level, where students are encouraged to take a more active role in seeing patients interact with clinicians.

“Usually, in China, students are learning out of a textbook,” Zhang said. “Here, students learn outside the classroom and, when they are in the classroom, they learn more actively. It’s more of a conversation.”

Zhang hopes to not only teach, but also practice occupational therapy in a clinic. So far, she said, the professors at Creighton are laying out for her a good example of that balance.

“There is a lot to learn and there are still some parts of the language I don’t pick up as quickly,” Zhang said. “But everyone has been so helpful. That’s what we hear about Creighton from the students who come back to Heibei: ‘Everyone is friendly at Creighton. Everyone wants to help.’”

And Zhang’s Creighton teaching mentors are seeing her take strides in areas where she has already demonstrated excellence and a determination to learn.

“Fangfang is a natural teacher and leader,” said Bobbi Greiner, OTD, OTR/L an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy. “I have not only seen her teaching Creighton students who travel to China, but have also witnessed her ability to facilitate professional growth within other rehabilitation therapists in her clinic. She leads by example and provides them opportunity to develop leadership skills and active engagement with the Creighton faculty and students to increase exposure to new theories and interventions.”

It’s becoming increasingly expected in Chinese health professions education that students gain at least some experience by studying abroad. Zhang said she can certainly see why, especially in the relationships Creighton has built. For three months over the summer, more than 30 students and faculty members from five Chinese universities temporarily called Creighton home as they took part in academic courses and cultural-enrichment programs.

At the end of her time here, Zhang will receive a certificate of completion from Creighton but, more than that, she said, she hopes she’s taking back with her some new strategies and ideas in the exchange.

“We need more of this kind of thing,” Zhang explained. “We need more students, more faculty who are willing to get up and go somewhere new and get a new perspective. You stay in the same place and get used to it, you start doing the same thing, and you might not be able to help as many people as you could.”

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