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Scholars ready for adventure abroad

Published Sep. 29, 2005

TO CHINA: A college journalism professor will teach in Shanghai. Preparing for the trip, though, poses its own challenges.

Something is likely to be lost in translation when USF journalism professor Bob Dardenne tries out his dry wit on his new students this month in China.

He uses that humor to keep the class discussions lively and flowing. But now, after winning a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, he will find himself standing before a group of eager-to-learn Chinese students who barely speak English as they learn newswriting and comparative journalism from him.

"My jokes as they are don't go over very well," said Dardenne, who teaches journalism at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. "You can imagine what I'm going to be up against."

Dardenne is about to embark on a yearlong journey to Shanghai as a member of the Fulbright Scholar Program, a cultural exchange program. He and his family are scheduled to leave on Monday.

The program is named after U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright. Created in 1945, it is a highly regarded scholarship that sends thousands of students, teachers and scholars abroad to scores of countries.

Concern over how well his jokes will work is a small worry compared to the list of challenges living in Shanghai for one year may bring to Dardenne, his wife, Barbara, and their 9-year-old son, Bobby.

"We've tried to prepare ourselves since we got the official word in July that we were going to Shanghai," said Dardenne, who doesn't speak any Chinese but who plans on trying to learn some key phrases during his trip there.

"But you know, you can't ever really be prepared. We just decided that as a family, we were ready for some kind of adventure, and the timing is perfect. Bobby is old enough, so he will be able to learn about China, as we all will."

According to William B. Bader, associate director of the United States Information Agency, it eventually became the U.S. government's flagship exchange in an effort for scholars and society leaders to observe and better comprehend the institutions, cultures and societies of other countries and people. College and university faculty, as well as professionals and independent scholars, are invited to lecture and conduct research in countries around the world.

The Fulbright Scholar Program is considered prestigious and admirable. Dardenne almost sees it as just another teaching assignment.

"Many consider being chosen to become a Fulbright Scholar as being prestigious, but I would imagine not many people would want to uproot their lives for a whole year to teach somewhere abroad," Dardenne said.

For Dardenne, the idea of a trip to Shanghai began with an interest in exotic, faraway cultures. He especially was intrigued by a society moving toward capitalism while at the same time the people still hold tight to their communistic ideals.

"As a journalist, I hope to write about my experiences while I'm over there," says Dardenne.

"I think the power growing within China will have great potential over the next few years. And what interests me the most is how the Chinese culture involves a communal approach to life. I want to learn more about that while I live in Shanghai."

Once the family realized the time was right to take on such an adventure, Dardenne soon found himself up to his textbooks with the massive amounts of applications, government red tape and medical exams _ required by both governments located on opposite sides of the world.

According to Dardenne, the preparation for the trip has been an experience in itself. For example, he had to rent a furnished apartment in Shanghai, sight unseen. The scholarship provides him with a stipend, but he will still have out-of-pocket expenses above and beyond that.

Barbara O'Reilley, Dardenne's wife, is a freelance journalist who plans to work from Shanghai.

Last-minute details have established a haunting presence within the Dardennes' St. Petersburg household. It's one thing to figure out which neighbor is going to water the plants, feed the cat and bring in the mail for anyone who is planning a seemingly simple two-week vacation away from home.

Imagine the arrangements required for a 12-month absence.

In addition to leasing out their St. Petersburg home, the Dardennes had plenty more to think about: Who will keep our cars serviced and running? What is involved in temporarily canceling the home and auto insurance? Whom will we choose to be the power of attorney to handle the finances and anything not yet thought of? And then there is the most important detail that could not be overlooked: Who is going to take their son's pet hamster, Pepper?

After an extensive interview process among Bobby's school chums, a temporary home was assigned and Pepper will be well cared for while Bobby is away.

The weeks pass quickly, and the hours draw near. As the family prepares to leave for their big adventure to the Far East, Dardenne admits the one area he can't plan for will be how his teaching style will be received in China.

"I find myself constantly trying to imagine what they'll think of the way I teach," Dardenne said.

"My usual teaching style is to encourage my students to discuss their opinions openly and uninhibited. Sometimes these discussions can get loud and passionate. It is my understanding that this type of debate or classroom participation is foreign to the Chinese students and they consider it very non-traditional.

"So, I'll just have to wait and see what happens."