Lincoln High School students traveling to China next month at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping are learning everything from how to pack a suitcase to how to stay comfortable on a flight that lasts at least 13 hours.
“I’m anxious to see how they live,” said sophomore Marcus Williams. “It’s a good opportunity. And it will look good on my college applications.”
When Xi visited the Tacoma school a year ago as part of a broader U.S. visit, he invited 100 Lincoln students to come to his country, compliments of the Chinese government.
Nearly twice that many students applied to take the trip, and the school held a lottery toward the end of last school year to select the lucky 100. The requirements to enter the lottery: at least a 2.5 grade-point average, and a thirst for adventure.
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“I love challenges and I love trying new things,” said junior Haley Naparan. “I’m excited to learn about a new culture.”
On Wednesday, student travelers gathered for an assembly to learn about some of the nuts and bolts of travel. While some of the students have traveled outside the U.S., about 20 percent have never been on a plane.
I love challenges and I love trying new things.
Lincoln student Haley Naparan
Lincoln science teacher Ben Dotson, a veteran traveler who has led other student tours, gave them the lowdown on what and how to pack, how to make sure they clear airport security and other travel tips.
Some students looked surprised when Dotson revealed that the group will be restricted to one carry-on bag and one other item, such as a backpack. To avoid chaos and save time, they won’t be checking bags. So Dotson offered advice on how to squeeze 12 days’ worth of travel garb into one small bag, and still have room for a few souvenirs.
When Xi visited Lincoln, he initially planned to invite perhaps 10 students to China, district administrator Minh Anh Hodge said.
“He asked me, via a translator, if my kids had studied abroad,” Lincoln Principal Pat Erwin said. “I said, no, my kids are very poor.”
Lincoln is one of the city’s most diverse high schools, and a school with a high student poverty rate. More than 75 percent of Lincoln students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a frequently cited marker for poverty.
The student travelers include 56 girls and 44 boys. There are native Spanish speakers, African Americans, Caucasian kids and at least three students of Chinese descent.
When Xi heard about the economic challenges faced by Lincoln students, he boosted his offer on the spot to include 100 students. Initially, the Chinese government planned to pay for the group’s expenses in China. But school officials contacted government officials and explained that raising money for airfare could prove difficult. The Chinese then agreed to bear that expense as well.
Erwin said he did not know the total dollar amount that the Chinese are spending to host his students, but he said he’s grateful for the opportunity.
The student group includes 56 girls and 44 boys, kids who are native Spanish speakers, African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasian kids and two students of Chinese descent — one born in China and adopted by an American family.
The student group includes several members of the Abes football team who will miss a few games while on the trip. But Erwin said their coach understands that the trip is an important opportunity.
In addition to the 100 students, 10 Lincoln teachers will be on the trip as chaperones, along with Erwin, Hodge and several others from Tacoma Public Schools. Their expenses are being covered by the Chinese government. Several local Asian business people also plan to travel with the Lincoln group, along with news reporters who are paying their own expenses.
Students will visit Tacoma sister city Fuzhou and the panda center at Chengdu
Others are supporting the trip as well, helping kids purchase everything from passports to luggage. A Chinese table tennis company called Double Happiness is paying to outfit Lincoln kids in official tour shirts so teachers will be able to easily keep track of students in a crowd. Lakewood businessman Ron Chow and Lincoln alumnus David Chong helped gather private funding that will enable the group to visit Hong Kong, which was not part of the original itinerary.
The Tacoma group will travel by bus to Sea-Tac airport in the early morning hours of Oct. 7. They’ll leave Seattle and land in Hong Kong. They will tour Hong Kong, visiting schools, tourist sites and cultural sites. From Hong Kong, the group will fly to Fuzhou, Tacoma’s sister city.
The Fuzhou connection is one reason Xi chose to visit Tacoma during his trip last year, which included Seattle-area meetings with Boeing and Microsoft officials, as well as with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
Xi is a former Fuzhou government official, who visited Tacoma more than 20 years ago to help set up the sister city arrangement.
From Fuzhou, the Lincoln group will travel to Chengdu, famous for its panda research and breeding center. Erwin said students are especially happy about visiting the panda center.
“When I told my kids about it, they just squealed,” he said. “They were so excited.”
Chow and Chong are part of the governing body of the Washington State Panda Foundation, a private group that has been lobbying to obtain a panda from China for a Washington state zoo.
Chow has said that he hopes bringing a panda to Washington would strengthen the state’s bonds with China. Chow and members of the Legislature have written to Chinese officials about the possibility, and last year they received a letter saying the government would study the idea.
From Chengdu, the Lincoln group will travel to the capital city of Beijing, their base for visits to the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, local schools and more before heading home.
One final possibility — nothing is definite at this time — is a meeting with Xi.
Hodge told students they will find China a fascinating place, a mix of ancient and modern cultures.
“You are going to love it,” she said. “And they are going to love you.”