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Educating a Champion: Valerie Smith

 Educating a Champion: Valerie Smith


Since grade school, SUNY Cortland senior Valerie Smith has admired the Chinese culture.

The geography major recently put her passion to practice when she temporarily relocated to Capital Normal University in Beijing, her study abroad destination for the next four months.

Sure, the Chinese capital likely will be a far cry from the city of Cortland and Smith’s hometown of Auburn, N.Y. But she isn’t harboring many worries outside of a fear of missing her connecting flight overseas.

“This is my chance to let the Chinese tell their story, unfiltered by Westerners,” Smith said.

The study abroad experience likely will be louder and busier than life in central New York. Beijing’s population, for instance, hovers around 20 million people, which is 1,000 times more than that of Cortland. Her new Chinese university claims a student population of 25,475 by itself, while her hometown totals 27,138 residents.

“I want to see how the residents live and work and compare it to what I’ve seen in central New York and large cities like San Francisco and New York City,” she said.

Valerie Smith
Valerie Smith

The geography major’s confidence and curiosity are two major reasons she won the College’s Wah Chip and Yuki Chin Scholarship, a $1,000 award established by a local Cortland couple in 2003.

Throughout their lives, Chinese native Wah Chip Chin and his Japanese-born wife, Yuki, opened their hearts and home to Chinese students visiting Cortland. Wah Chip survived his wife and established the scholarship in his estate.

Smith’s achievement marks the first time an individual American student has won the award. In past years, the scholarship money has gone to a SUNY Cortland class traveling to China or to exchange students from Asia studying at the College.

It’s a well-deserved honor, too, given that Smith has spent the majority of her life embracing Chinese culture. She vaguely remembers learning about the world’s most populated nation as a kindergartner. Her interest shifted to Japanese culture during her childhood and teenage years, but she ultimately rekindled a love for learning about China.

“My fascination stems from (China) being one of the oldest civilizations on the planet and the similarities and differences between it and our Western culture and society,” Smith said.

She transferred to SUNY Cortland from SUNY Plattsburgh in the fall of 2010 and in the three semesters since, she’s taken three Chinese language courses with Hai-Ying Wang, a lecturer of modern languages. Learning the Mandarin language was exciting and easier than Smith anticipated, she said.

“One thing about my professors, they cared enough to encourage me to refine my skills and follow my interests,” Smith said. “Instead of just telling me I did a good job, they let me know where I needed to improve and were genuinely happy to answer my endless questions.”

Smith said her interest in people and their cultures led her to pursue geography as a major. The field is broad, she said, and it allows her to incorporate her major interests in life.

Right now, one of those interests is Chinese culture.

“The opportunity to go there fits perfectly with my goal to become a geographer,” said Smith, who will study in Beijing until late June and graduate from SUNY Cortland in August. “I’ll be seeing new infrastructure developing and social changes being made that most older generations of Chinese did not witness in the previous decade.”

Eventually, she hopes to earn a doctorate related to geography. Her older sister taught English as a second language in South Korea after college and eventually landed a job in research and development overseas.

Smith is already planning her own long-term return across the Pacific.

“I’d like to find a way to get back to China,” she said.