Photography course took on added dimension as study abroad trip to China

BY Cheryl Taylor

Eleven students from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley traded their classes at UTRGV for classes at Hengyang Normal University (HYNU) in Hengyang, Hunan Province, China, to study digital photography.

The trip was from May 16 to June 3 under the direction of Ping Xu, UTRGV professor of art.

“This trip allowed me to open my eyes to the world around me and broaden my perspective, in terms of life and art,” said Isabella Hernandez, a junior graphic design major from Mission working toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in graphic design.

From the moment they set foot in Beijing, the students were off on a three-day whirlwind of sightseeing under Xu’s guidance, visiting important venues like the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Jingshan Park, Olympic Park, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and Nanluoguxiang, a well-preserved historic part of Beijing with traditional architecture. One day was devoted to an excursion to the Great Wall.

“The Great Wall was an amazing experience because it is a place that we learned about in school and had seen in books,” said Kimberly Alaniz, a senior English education major from McAllen. “I never imaged I would get to see it in person.”

For some, the trip involved not only their first airplane flight – and for all, certainly the longest – but also their first bullet train ride on the 7½-hour journey from Beijing to Hengyang, Hunan.


Once in Hengyang, the students settled into the dormitory at HYNU and began a full schedule of activities. Mornings consisted of three hours in class learning the skills of image retouching and manipulation in Photoshop.

“We were fortunate to have access every afternoon, for three or four hours, to use the well-equipped lighting studio in HYNU’s College of Fine Arts for studio shooting,” Xu said.

Each UTRGV student was partnered with an HYNU student “buddy” during their 12 days in Hengyang.

“The highlight for me on this trip was getting to meet the students at HYNU,” Hernandez said. “I was blessed to have been partnered with an incredibly sweet and talented art student named Bill, and we developed a friendship that I hope will last a lifetime. I know many of my classmates shared the same sentiments toward their partners, as well as the rest of the students from the university.”

One particularly meaningful experience for the UTRGV students was a gift to each of them of a tailor-made seal with their Chinese names in the ancient seal script of Hanzi characters, based on similar pronunciation or implied meaning.

“This is an ancient custom that is still used today to prove identity on documents, contracts, art, or similar items where authorship is considered important,” said Yvette Salinas, a communication graduate student from Alton. “Receiving our own seals made by the host students was such an honor.”

Excursions from Hengyang included a boat cruise at Guilin Li River National Park, the ancient town of Yangzhou, a Miao village, and Seven Star Geological Park. The students also visited Heng Mountain, considered one of the top five famous mountains in China.

“All of our excursions were good sources for the students to practice their photography skills and complete their assigned projects for the class,” Xu said. “Every day the students seemed more inspired and expressed fresh ideas.”

Alaniz said it would be impossible for her to select a favorite place on the trip.

“All of the ancient landmarks, buildings, the mountains and the people were great,” she said. “Hiking up mountains and through caves was definitely a big highlight for me, since I love being outdoors and had never really seen a mountain before.”

Salinas said having Xu lead and teach the course was a strong deciding factor in her decision to enroll in the class.

“Taking this trip with Professor Xu, who was born and raised in Shanghai, who understands the Chinese culture and language, made the experience all the more enriching and educational,” she said.

Students who participated in the study abroad digital photography class will exhibit their work during the fall semester. Dates and location will be announced.


Three UTRGV administrators – UTRGV Deputy Provost Dr. Cynthia Brown; Dr. Dennis Hart, associate provost for Global Engagement; and Dr. Patricia McHatton, dean of the College of Education and P-16 Integration – visited HYNU for several days while the study abroad students were there.

“The HYNU students entertained everyone from UTRGV with an impressive show,” Brown said. “The performances included martial arts demonstrations using swords and other weapons, plus a wonderfully choreographed and acrobatic ‘dragon dance’ with four separate teams of students wearing dragon costumes.”

Later in the evening, the visitors were treated to traditional Chinese music and dance performances complete with traditional costumes.

“It was a delightful evening, and all of us were impressed with the talent of the students and the warmth of the welcome we received from the students and administration of HYNU,” Brown said.

UTRGV and HYNU have been in partnership since 2009, when an agreement was signed with UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American to establish opportunities for faculty from both institutions to study and conduct research on each other’s campuses. The recent visit was to establish UTRGV’s commitment with a new bilateral relations agreement.

This fall, seven visiting professors from HYNU will join the UTRGV faculty – some for one semester, others for two. The group includes professors in business, art, English, kinesiology and history.

For more information on study abroad opportunities, contact International Programs and Partnerships at IPP is part of the Office of Global Engagement.