"Sensory overload is one way to describe what is going on for me right now. There is so much to learn about China and the high school students where I teach."
Laura Merleau-McGrady, an alumna of Starkloff Disability Institute's Next Big Step program in St. Louis, will never be the same.
On Saturday, August 1, Laura arrived in Guangzhou, China, after 36 hours of travel from St. Louis to begin her new job as an English teacher at The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University. She now lives in a small apartment on the 28th floor of a skyscraper in Guangzhou, a city of more than 8.5 million people about 100 miles from Hong Kong. She'll teach English to Chinese students for the next two years.
Guangzhou is located on the Pearl River, about 120 km north-northwest of Hong Kong and 145 km north of Macau, Guangzhou, also known as Canton, and less commonly as Kwangchow, and is the capital and largest city of Guangdong province in South China."My experience of going to China so far has been a whirlwind of activity," says Laura, who left her home in Waterloo, Illinois - near St. Louis - for her new job in China. Since 2005, she has suffered from fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. She is also bipolar.
Laura's condition didn't keep her from earning a Ph.D. in American Literature, with an emphasis in creative writing, at the University of Kansas. Yet she couldn't find steady employment. That all changed when Laura entered SDI's Next Big Step program in 2014. The 12-week job-readiness program helps people with disabilities become more competitive job seekers.
Last fall, Laura applied for a job teaching English as a Second Language at Saint Louis University and was hired. She began teaching English to Chinese, Hispanic and Middle Eastern students at SLU in November 2014.
Quickly, everything got more interesting. "A SLU colleague, Charlotte Yuan, was a visiting scholar from Guangzhou. She told me about the high school there, and she suggested that I apply for a job teaching English. I sent a copy of my resume. Soon, I had an interview via Skype with the principal and head of the English department there. A few weeks later, I received an email offering me the job." Soon after, Laura began learning Chinese.
Today, Laura says, "I have been busy doing everything from meeting new people to starting a new job and finding a place to live. Sensory overload is one way to describe what is going on for me right now. There is so much to learn about China and the high school students where I teach.
"Orientation for new teachers began on August 7, and classes started on August 10. When I first arrived, I stayed at the Shangde Hotel. Then I moved into the small apartment I found. It takes about 45 minutes to get to school on the metro, as long as I don't leave during rush hour. By taxi, the trip takes ten minutes - except at rush hour!""My classes start at 8:00 a.m., so I leave before rush hour starts. I try to come home again before evening rush hour craziness hits. My apartment's living room is piled with stacks of papers to grade! Getting accustomed to China while preparing class lessons, teaching and grading papers is quite a juggling act. I am teaching three sections of English. Starting in a month or so, I will teach an additional class for Junior high school students.
"All of my students are so enthusiastic and disciplined! All of them are Chinese, but they speak English very well. They are going to school with the intention of attending school at a Western university. The view from my apartment on the 28th floor is of Guangzhou's financial district, not far from the Canton Tower and the Pearl River."
Laura goes on to say that "SDI's Next Big Step program was great for me. Susan Menhard (program director) and Tina Vinson (employment specialist) made excellent presentations and recruited great guest speakers from human resource departments from St. Louis organizations.
"Susan and Tina taught our class a lot about speaking skills and how to present ourselves in a professional manner for job interviews. We also had to develop presentations to make to the class, and we did mock interviews with HR specialists who visited our classes. We met with HR executives at local companies and organizations as part of the SDI training."
"I hope everyone who participates in Starkloff Disability Institute's Next Big Step Program gets as much reward out of it as I did by reaching the next chapter in their lives and participating in the job market," Laura says. "It is a wonderful program, a great experience for all who participate and for the organizations involved. I am very grateful for the opportunities it provides."
"I dreamed the other night that I was at a big grocery store back home filling my shopping cart with all the ingredients I would need to bake some gluten-free food. I am also dreaming of all the friends I made at SDI and in St. Louis. I miss every one of you!
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