HESSTON — When Mackenzie Miller first enrolled at Hesston College, she was unsure how she would live out her dream of going to China — or how she would be able to study Mandarin Chinese.

But now, as a 2018 graduate, she is the first participant in a "bridge year" program.

“Hearing about the potentials of this program while I was a student at Hesston College was an answer to my longing for travel, for learning more about myself and for spending time in another culture - opening myself up to a world that I wouldn’t often see if I just stayed in one place,” Miller said. “It was also an affirmation to my thoughts of taking a gap year.”

She is halfway through a year-long stay in Nanjing, China, having an immersive cultural and linguistic experience with Hesston’s bridge year pilot program.

“Mandarin is a passion for me, but it is still only one part of me,” said Miller. “I knew Hesston College would continue to nurture those other parts of me while allowing me to reimagine how language could fit into my dreams and future goals. And I wasn’t wrong.”

As a high school student, she was quickly drawn into and captivated by Mandarin Chinese, a language so different from her own. During her college search, Miller knew study of the language was not something she was ready to leave behind, and even though Hesston College doesn’t offer classes in Mandarin, she chose to start at Hesston because of the freedom, flexibility and support the college could offer her as she continued pursuing her passion.

Early in her final semester at Hesston, Miller was considering options for the following fall - transfer somewhere to study communication or take a "gap year," a year off from school.

“I was struggling to find a way to go to China for an extended period of time with the level of Mandarin I already had,” she said. “Large schools offered lots of options, but I wanted to stay small.”

Then first-year Hesston College President Joseph Manickam requested a meeting with her. During that meeting, Manickam asked her to go to China.

Part of Manickam’s vision for Hesston College is, as he puts it, “for every student to have a passport.” Hesston has long maintained a strong international student program on campus - averaging an annual international student population of about 13 percent. International students live outside of their norm and comfort zone every day, and Manickam wants all students to have the same opportunities for experiences and growth in new cultures.

To organize and facilitate Miller’s experience in Nanjing, Hesston College worked with Mennonite Partners in China, a China-based organization that provides opportunities for North Americans to experience and build relationships with the Chinese people and culture.

For Miller, the program includes language study at Nanjing Normal University and serving in an internship with Zhi-Mian Institute, a psychology center.

Every weekday morning, Miller studies Mandarin with other international students. They work on character writing and having conversations with one another. In the afternoon, she works at her internship. She lives in international student housing with two Malaysian roommates. On weekends and during free time, she explores the city of eight million and the surrounding region, taking in the culture and history.

“Certainly we are learning a lot through Mackenzie’s experiences this year,” said John Murray, dean of Global Engagement, who leads the team developing the program. “One of the things we’ve learned is that partnerships with other organizations, like Mennonite Partners in China, is essential. They provide the insight and connections with the country, so we’re continuing to build additional partnerships to expand our opportunities with the program.”

Individual experiences like Miller’s are only one of the opportunites for transcultural study  at Hesston College. The college also offers shorter group experiences as well. This summer, three-week or month-long group trips are being planned to Japan, Thailand and Philadelphia, which are open to students and others with interest.

Miller still has about six months left in her program before returning to the U.S. and preparing to attend sister institution Goshen (Ind.) College in the fall.

Follow Mackenzie Miller on her transcultural journey in Nanjing, China, at hesston.edu/mackenzie.