Breaking Barriers Through English Essayist

On Monday, July 11, fans at Petco Park in San Diego -- the site of the 2016 MLB All-Star Game -- will cheer on Major League Baseball stars as they launch home run after home run during the 2016 T-Mobile Home Run Derby.

Yet even before the start of this annual fan-favorite event, the crowd will also witness the celebration of a young "All-Star" who showed tremendous courage by publicly demonstrating values used by my father, Jackie Robinson, to break a personal barrier. This lucky grand prize winner was chosen out of nearly 18,000 entries in the "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" essay contest run by Major League Baseball and Scholastic, and generously supported by official MLB sponsor Church & Dwight.

The program began in 1997. That year was the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier, and during a wonderful (yet cold) ceremony at Shea Stadium on April 15, Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig, with my mother, Rachel, and President Bill Clinton by his side, announced that my father's number 42 would be retired throughout the game in perpetuity.

Following that momentous evening, my mother and I divided invitations from clubs to attend their ballpark ceremonies to honor my father's legacy. One of my first ones was with the Seattle Mariners in the Kingdome, and I was invited to throw out the first pitch. I was so nervous entering that massive cement structure filled with cheering fans and a mob of press, and I was fearful that the ball wouldn't reach home plate.

Before I knew it, there was Ken Griffey, Jr. (currently a Hall of Fame electee) walking up to me with his wide grin and strong arms. We exchanged encouraging words and signed baseballs. Cameras flashed. When a reporter asked me if this was just about celebrations at ballparks, I paused. My parents were activists, I explained. My dad was deeply invested in youth, and right then I knew that this Jackie Robinson ballpark tribute had to impact the wider community. Three months later, I retired from twenty years as a nurse midwife and educator and began an amazing second career as an Educational Programming Consultant with Major League Baseball.

Breaking Barriers is a character education and literacy program for students in grades four through nine. The program teaches that we all face barriers in our lives, even Major League players. We help students understand the importance of character and how Jackie Robinson used nine core values to overcome his barriers. The national essay contest is at the heart of the program as students apply the lessons they've learned to their own lives. By participating, children discover strengths in their own character that will help them overcome their personal struggles, challenges, hardships, and, yes, barriers.

It's hard to believe that this spring we will announce our twentieth class of essay winners. Over the years, kids have shared the full range of personal barriers, and in the process have inspired us with their resilience. Winners receive prizes that include: a trip to the Major League All-Star Game, laptop computers, a class visit from me, classroom sets of Breaking Barriers T-shirts, copies of my latest novel, The Hero Two Doors Down, and tablets for their teachers. Occasionally, the stars will align and we add a ballpark visit with players to the mix.

Over the years, the Breaking Barriers program has reached more than 22 million children across the United States. To commemorate this twentieth anniversary, we reached out to past winners to find out the long-term impact the program has had on them. The responses had common themes of self-confidence, confidence as a writer, and hope.

Peter is now a freshman at NYU Shanghai. He was a 2012 grand prize winner and an active Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) Scholar at that time. I saw Peter last month in New York when he came in for the annual JRF conference. Born on the West Bank in the Middle East, Peter's winning essay described his family's escape from war when he was five and his personal journey since coming to America.

Peter now speaks multiple languages and is positioning himself to be a leader in global affairs. He wrote that the experience of winning the Breaking Barriers essay contest was inspiring, "namely in the confidence and hope in myself that the contest sparked ... the experience showed me exactly what setting my mind to something can accomplish: big things."

Malcolm, the 2015 Breaking Barriers grand prize winner, will be in our lives forever. He's an avid baseball player from New Orleans as a member of that city's MLB Urban Youth Academy. Malcolm's poignant essay described how he'd been bullied for years because he stutters. What shined through the pain was his indomitable spirit. It was equally clear that by winning the breaking barriers contest, Malcolm's status at school was elevated, and he has pledged to send us his report card each term. He's also getting help including being sponsored by MLB to attend a summer camp for kids who stutter. Malcolm summed up his experience this way: "Winning the contest in 2015 has allowed me to find my voice."

We met Megan when she was 14 and she had 14 surgeries for a rare disorder. Her grand prize-winning essay showed incredible writing talent. Megan is also a baseball historian. She was so impressive that after spending some time with her at the 2011 World Series, Commissioner Emeritus Selig hired her as the youth reporter for

Megan, who is now studying journalism at Miami University (Oxford, OH), recently described the program's impact on her life in the following way: "It is one of the formative experiences of my life. From Breaking Barriers, I have gained the world: confidence in myself and my self-identity, memories to last a lifetime, the professional opportunities of my dreams and some of the most treasured relationships ... I could go on and on."

I also could go on and on sharing stories from the lives of hundreds of children we've met through the Breaking Barriers program. Over the last five years, I've faced my own barriers--the most tragic being the day my 35-year-old son had a fatal heart attack. The loss was indescribable. Then, I met Raymond (one of the grand prize winners in 2014). He was a shy fifth grader who'd survived repeated brain surgeries and I find myself thinking, Wouldn't my father be proud.

For the past twenty years, I've shared my dad's story with children, emphasizing his strength of character. As a children's book author, I've been able to expand my reach and inspire another generation with lessons I've learned from him. This work is powerful and I feel grateful.

My father once said, "A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives." This is the way he lived his life, on and off the field. His legacy in baseball and beyond reflects the power of this statement. From the bold display of the number 42 across Major League Baseball clubs, Jackie Robinson Day, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life, Jackie Robinson is a living legacy.

Janette Lan started her college career just like any other freshman.

She arrived at school nervous about her classes, nervous about making friends and nervous about being on her own for the first time.

But Lan was worried about more than where she would sit in her writing and research class.

She worried about fitting into the American culture almost 8,000 miles away from her home in Guangzhou, China.

Leaving her family and traveling across the world for school was a tough choice. She wanted to experience American culture, but she knew it was risky.

What if she didn’t do well in her classes because the language was too difficult to understand?

What if she didn’t get along with American students? What if she missed her family too much?

While many international students at the University may feel alone and uncertain when first arriving on campus, they are not alone. International students make up about 22 percent of students enrolled at the University.

Currently, there are 44,542 students enrolled as of the spring 2017 semester; 10,037 of them are part of the University’s international student program, according to the Division of Management Information.

Of the 112 international countries represented in the student population, China is the leading country in international student enrollment at the University. According to the DMI, approximately 5,327 Chinese students are enrolled as of Spring 2017, which is about 12 percent of the entire student body and 53 percent of the international student population.

India follows with 1,226 students enrolled at the University. Next, South Korea brings 1,099 students, according to the DMI.

Veerle Opgenhaffen, former director of global communications and protocol, said the University is a “household name in China and South Korea for sure.”

The University has an office in Shanghai to help returning college graduates find careers in China. The office opened in December 2013. Opgenhaffen said a common misconception about the office’s main purpose is to recruit students from China to attend school in Illinois.

“The University of Illinois doesn’t do any recruitment internationally, and the fact is that we really don’t have to because our reputation is so incredible,” said Veerle Opgenhaffen, director of Global Communications and Protocol. “Globally, we are known as one of the best schools in the world in an affordable way.”

Opgenhaffen said students from other countries hear about the University by word of mouth.

Since 2007, the international studies program has doubled without the help of international recruiting. In 2007, 4,815 international students were enrolled at the University, which made up about 12 percent of the student population.

Opgenhaffen said many students hear the stories of successful college graduates returning to their home country and finding decent jobs in their field.

That’s what convinced Yang Rui, freshman in Education, to attend the University. Originally from Beijing, Rui wanted to study in America since her sophomore year of high school; however, she didn’t allow herself to be hopeful. Tuition was expensive, and family was far away.

After hearing such intriguing stories from her friend at the University, Rui decided to challenge herself and take her education all the way across the world.

Making the decision

Before coming to the University, Janette Lan faced many uncertainties. She knew America was where she wanted to continue her education but leaving everything behind was a tough decision.

The food, the classrooms, the people — life in America isn’t the same.

Most prospective students looking to attend the University, both American and international, heavily research to ensure the school is their perfect choice.

For Lan, it was the American education system. In China, most professors don’t encourage discussions during their lectures. Lan decided she wanted this in her education.

“If I’m really interested in some topics, I like to discuss and share my opinions,” Lan said. “I really like the active classroom in the United States. You can ask the professor a question, and no matter what the question is, the professor will always be willing to answer the question. It makes you engage in the class.”

The second best part are the opportunities Lan has for research that would be less accessible at a Chinese university.

“When I listen to lecture given by my professor, I can contact that professor and say, “Hey, I want to do research with you. I am really interested in your topic. Can we do a meeting and share our ideas together?’ I feel like it’s easier for me to do that at U of I,” Lan said.

Because many Chinese educational practices don’t involve active discussion, Lan finds it easier to write essays in English rather than conversing with her classmates. Lan said it’s easier because she practiced her English by writing more than she did by speaking; however, she is always open to the challenge of engaging in interesting academic conversations.

In order to attend the University, non-English speaking international students must complete the Test of English as a Foreign Language. However, international students that attend an American high school may receive a voucher for the test. International students also need to apply for an F-1 visa, which allows international students to legally live in the United States to study at an American school.

After completing all of the necessary steps, thousands of international students flood into the University every fall with hopes of making a new home at Illinois.

In fall 2016, Rui was one of these students.

She came to school excited to experience the same things that her long-time friend on campus had been telling her all about.

She was never scared about coming to Illinois, and the endless possibilities motivated her to start her journey.

“I feel like I’m the kind of person that can (adapt) to a new environment, it’s not really a problem for me,” Rui said. “I feel like (my friend) being here made me feel more connected to this school. I feel like U of I was pretty special for me before I applied for an American college.”

Trying to fit in

Martin McFarlane, director of the International Student and Scholar Services, said most international students come to the University intrigued by the new culture and the new experiences ahead of them.

McFarlane refers to this period of time as the “honeymoon phase.”

However, this phase eventually wears off after the first semester of their first year. They might not have done as well as they expected in a particular class. They might come back to school after winter break and start to miss their friends from home and their families more.

Rui completely agrees with the concept of the “honeymoon phase.” She said she didn’t start to feel homesick until the beginning of second semester. After she came back from visiting her family for the winter, she realized how much she missed her mom — especially her mom’s cooking.

When she first arrived on campus at the beginning of the year, Rui was eager to start school in America, but she was also a little confused. She experienced culture shock, a disorientating feeling that many people encounter when they become acquainted with a new environment.

While Rui’s experiences with culture shock were short-lived, many international students experience a much more extreme version.

“A lot of times, culture shock comes on as just panic and a feeling of being alone and a feeling of not connecting to anyone or anything in your community,” said Corey Thoss, director of New Student Programs at the University.

While this feeling of panic might not have been true for Rui, some international students do feel this way during their first year of school.

For Rui, her culture shock was more uncomfortable than anything else.

“I was the majority in my country, and now I’ve become a minority,” Rui said.

“I was the majority in my country, and now I’ve become a minority.”

She said it felt odd living in an unfamiliar environment. Rui came to the University with the goal of making friends with both international and domestic students to help maximize her experience.

“Being in college, a huge part is to find your career,” Rui said. “I think being involved in a certain kind of organization can really help you find your community and find your passion.”

With that in mind, Rui became a member of the UNICEF club on Quad Day. She’s made a lot of friends, both international and domestic, through the organization. She’s become an involved participant, partaking in many UNICEF events held around campus.

One day, Rui wants to work for the United Nations. She hopes her experience with UNICEF will help her to reach this goal.

Many international students join RSOs specific to the country they are from such as the Chinese Student Association or the Korean Student Association.

However, Rui has a slightly different mindset about student organizations that she feels deviates from many opinions on campus.

To really immerse herself in the campus, Rui intentionally joined organizations that weren’tspecific to her culture.

“You don’t have to be Chinese or Korean to be involved in an organization,” Rui said. “I am Chinese, but I am thinking about becoming involved in PSA, which is Philippine Student Association.”

Rui became interested in PSA because of the community. She has fun with the people involved. Rui has three friends in PSA, and two of them are not Filipino.

It’s all part of Rui’s greater plan. Working for UNICEF, and hopefully the United Nations, allows her to experience a variety of cultures. To help her prepare for her future, Rui is also trying to learn French as a third language.

But it’s not easy. Her professor teaches English to French. Sometimes, Rui struggles with just the English.

Rui speaks only Chinese at home or with her family; however, she’s been learning English since primary school. Rui speaks English very well, but it can be difficult to learn a French word when she doesn’t understand it in English.

So Rui resorts to a multi-step process. First, she translates the word from French to English.Then, she goes from English to Chinese.

“I plan to learn more languages in the future,” Rui said. “I really want to take Japanese, Arabic and Spanish, and all of these languages. I think I wouldn’t be able to do that in China, but I can definitely do that here.”

While Rui found it easy at first to join organizations and make friends with both domestic and international students, this isn’t always the case for every student.

For Lan, it’s easier to make friends with domestic students in the classroom than it is to make friends with domestic students in clubs and organizations.

“The international students have their own organizations, and the domestic students have their own organizations,” Lan said. 

When Lan has a small class of about 20 people or less, she tries to talk to domestic students and make friends. She’ll even ask them to study with her outside of the classroom; however, it’s different in a lecture or a large class. Here, she feels more comfortable making friends with international students because they are more like her.

She finds it problematic that in large settings many international students hang out with other international students, and many domestic students hang out with domestic students. However, she admits to falling into this trend because it’s where she feels safe.

It’s easier for Lan to talk to domestic students in an academic setting because there is a common ground within the classroom. When they’re in the same class, they can talk about topics that are covered within the course; however, it’s more difficult to discuss topics outside the classroom, and that is where Lan struggles to make conversation.

“I can always understand my classmates conversations but it is kind of hard to join in on their conversations,” Lan said. “Their conversations are different from what we do in Asian countries.”

Lan said she feels international students try their best to fit into the American lifestyle, but sometimes it’s just easier to resort back to what they know.

“What I have noticed is that a lot of international students really do go out of their way to get out of their shells but it’s kind of also human nature to be comfortable around people who can speak your language, eat your food, make you feel at home,” Opgenhaffen said.

Breaking the misconceptions

With such a large international presence, many stereotypes regarding international students circulate the University. With any stereotype, prejudices and racial obscenities quickly follow.

Martin McFarlane has devoted the last 10 years to fighting international student prejudice. He works to enhance the cultural experience on campus and to provide leadership for programs on campus to do that.

McFarlane believes the stereotypes surrounding the international student program are one of the most frustrating components of his job.

“If you don’t think diversity in education is important, then it’s hard to get to a starting point,” McFarlane said. “I think most people in higher education realize that one of the big components of education is an exchange of ideas.”

Of all the stereotypes about international students on campus, McFarlane said one of the worst ones he’s heard is, “all international students are wealthy.”

The ISSS offers an abundance of donor-supported scholarships and awards to help aid international students with their overwhelming tuition fees.

Illinois residents pay around $20,000 in tuition and fees, whereas international students pay about $42,000 for tuition and fees. This total doesn’t include room and board, books, supplies or groceries.

Every year, ISSS receives hundreds of applications from incoming students and their families. Some applications describe students whose families have suffered extreme devastation such as earthquakes, tsunamis and war.

Costly tuition is a global problem. Many international families save for years to send their child to school, and many international students find jobs on campus or around Champaign-Urbana to help pay their tuition just like domestic students.

But the stereotype persists.

On Dec. 10, 2016, a red Ferrari collided with another car and crashed into Andy’s Barber Shop at 2036 S. Neil St. An international student was driving the Ferrari. That day, The News-Gazette published a story titled “Ferrari strikes building after crash.”

Comments following the article attacked the international presence surrounding the University. Someone commented, “a phone call across the drink and the probable international U of I student will have a new Ferrari delivered before classes begin in January.”

While some defended the international presence, most people made stereotypical claims that international students flaunt their wealth ostentatiously.

Incidents like these anger McFarlane.

“All the comments are about another international student with all of this money,” McFarlane said. “You get an instance like that and you want to say ‘No, I have a pile of applications on my desk from international students that proves this stereotype is not true’ and yet it persists.”

Lan agrees with McFarlane. She believes the stereotype is just not true.

In order to attend the University, international students need to prove that they are able to afford their first year at school, which McFarlane estimates should be at least $60,000 to cover tuition, rent and other necessities, like groceries.

The University uses a portion of money made from international tuition to provide subsidies for domestic student scholarships.

Opgenhaffen said many domestic students wouldn’t receive the funding that they do if it wasn’t for the international tuition.

While international students need a sufficient amount of money to attend the University, Lan feels international students are just like domestic students in that they spend their money cautiously.

“When they say the word ‘wealthy,’ they mean that we can buy (Louis Vuitton) or buy Gucci purses, expensive stuff, or we can just throw our money around to do something unnecessary,” Lan said. “I don’t feel like that. I feel like even though (international students) have a decent amount of money to get here, they still want to utilize their money well here.”

McFarlane said stereotypes exist based on pre-conceived. notions about a certain group and they are eliminated when students start to talk to them. When relationships are built, the stereotypes start to fade and a common ground is established.

Just like the stereotype that all international students are wealthy, there is also a stereotype that every international student is in the College of Engineering.

According to the Division of Management Information, the College of Engineering is about 37 percent international students; however, the College of Business, the College of FAA and the College of LAS also all have a large international population.

About 25 percent of the college of Business is international, about 25 percent of the college of FAA is international and about 22 percent of the college of LAS is international.

“I agree that some Chinese students apply to this school because the Engineering school is pretty good, but it is not the whole part,” Lan said. “For me, I am not interested in Engineering at all, and I’m not good at science. I’m not good at math. I’m not good at physics. That is the focus of Engineering so I feel like it is a bad stereotype.”

International students disliking domestic students is another stereotype that surrounds the international program.

“While it is on the international students to eventually break out of that mindset, it’s also on the domestic students to try and help them into that,” McFarlane said.

He said it’s the responsibility of both the international and the domestic students to break the barriers between them. He wonders if many domestic students even try to connect with international students.

“I have a lot of American friends, I also have a lot of Chinese friends and I’m trying to balance my time spent with Americans and Chinese,” Rui said

Corey Thoss, the senior assistant Dean of Students, believes international students are incredibly brave for taking on the challenge of leaving everything they know behind to study in America. He said he couldn’t imagine leaving his family for four years to study in an entirely new environment with different customs, foods and people.

He said international students are really learning what it means to be self-reliant and independent.

“They’re gaining skills and mindsets and different lenses in which to see work and see friendships and to see connections for the rest of their lives,” Thoss said.

Balancing act

There’s another popular misconception about international students — they take potential University spots away from domestic students.

This is not true.

Opgenhaffen said all student applicants — international or domestic — are weighed equally and the spot is given to the student who deserves it the most.

“We really don’t have to do a lot of work getting students to apply,” Opgenhaffen said. “If anything, we turn away a lot more than we want to. There’s a prevailing stereotype that a lot of people sort of buy their way into this school, but to be honest, we get the best, most qualified students in the world who pass through very stringent testing.”

The University student population increases every year in both its international and its domestic presence. Opgenhaffen said there isn’t a domestic student that is turned down from the University because an international student has taken their place.

“There isn’t a domestic student that is turned down from the University because an international student has taken their place.”

To McFarlane, the diverse presence at the University goes beyond ethnicity. He believes it’s more than just being Hispanic or being Native American.

“If you have a very diverse but entirely American university, then you don’t have a truly diverse university. You don’t truly have as wide an exchange of ideas as you can,” McFarlane said.

The University has always aimed to have a culturally fulfilling experience for all students. Many people see the international presence as an advantage to every student and faculty member. It allows them to work in a diverse environment and prepare them for their future careers.

Thoss said he thinks many people don’t understand that having a large international presence does more to help students than it does to hinder them. He said students need to have a strengthened understanding in global work, and he believes students should consider themselves lucky that they have an opportunity to experience that at the international and the domestic level.

“(Students) are really learning how to work in a global market,” Thoss said. “They are also going through the personal, developmental process leaving their comfort zone and trying something totally new.”

McFarlane stresses that the University thrives on the overwhelming, diverse international and domestic presence on campus. He believes that every student should be given a fair chance to succeed in their educationand believes that the University is the place to start.

“You are absolutely wanted, you are needed here,” McFarlane said. “A university who stops admitting students of a particular country, a particular religious background, a particular race is doing a huge disservice not just to those students but also other international students and its domestic population.”

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