By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

When Chinese teacher Yan Li first started teaching Chinese 12 years ago, she had a clear mission in mind. 

“My goal has always been for the program to not just be about the grades. I wanted my students to know the culture, the people, and to expose them to cities, geography, and history,” she said. “I always felt that it was very important to have a deeper understanding of the culture, food, and the language. We all learn together and grow together.” 

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Mission complete. 

Even as the Chinese program at Ponte Vedra High School ends this year, Li feels successful in her mission and has many memories to help her remain positive. 

“I am so proud of my students. I really see how much they can get out of the language and the culture. They have exposed themselves to all of it,” she said. “Many of my students have reached out to me after graduation to share many heartwarming stories.” 

For example, one student used to work for the American Embassy in China, and another once opened a business in China. Li said she frequently hears from former students about the impact the class had on them. Ponte Vedra High School was the only high school in St. Johns County to offer the program. 

The Chinese program began in 2008, and Li took it over in 2012. Prior to that, Li began the Chinese program at William M. Raines High School in Jacksonville and taught Chinese at Landrum Middle School. Li is also highly involved with and volunteered in the Chinese community in Jacksonville. She has been the principal of Jacksonville Chinese Sunday School since 2008. 

One of the main highlights of the program at Ponte Vedra has been students attending the Florida Statewide Chinese Competition (FSCC) over the years. At the competitions, students from across the state competed in individual listening, reading, and speaking competitions. In 2023, Ponte Vedra won first place in the cultural jeopardy game and the creative project competition. Five students attended the competition this year in Orlando. 

Junior Joy Qiu said that the competition is a true highlight for her. 

“The time we spent writing and practicing our speeches, the jokes we made while preparing for Jeopardy, and the memories we made during this are certainly unforgettable,” she said. “As all the Chinese schools across Florida come together and compete annually, many new friends are made and many old faces are seen each year, making each year incredibly memorable.” 

Sophomore Ben Williams said Chinese class has been so impactful in his life. 

“As a student who has dedicated three years to studying Chinese and has actively participated in the Chinese competition club for two years, Chinese class has played an integral part in my life,” he said. “Beyond just learning the language, Chinese has become intertwined with my identity allowing me to connect with my Chinese-speaking grandparents on a deeper level.” 

Li said she is very sad to see the program end at the high school and that she will miss her students the most and the bonds that were formed. 

“To me, they are like my kids,” she said. “I am so sad to see the program end. I cannot do anything about it. It was a budget cut made by the St. Johns County School District and the administration. I am sad for the students and for myself. My goal has always been to have everyone enjoy the class and to make it fun. I will remember it fondly.”

Photo courtesy Yan Li 

Ponte Vedra High Chinese Club students participated in the Florida Statewide Chinese Competition in March. All students who attended received high marks in their individual categories.

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