Faith, love lead GCU grad back to teaching in China
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Rashida Thomas was alone in a Chinese apartment. It was January, and she had never felt so lonely.
A strange, new virus was spreading in the country where she was student teaching, and she was told to stay inside.
“When it first hit, it was kind of scary. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on, and I was in a different country. There were so many times I was confused, I was scared and angry,” Thomas said. “But being able to pray to God gave me a sense of peace and understanding that it’s not as bad as I make it out to be.”
The Grand Canyon University student calmed herself, endured the following two weeks alone and returned to the U.S., only to face the raging pandemic of COVID-19 here.
Now she’s going back to China to teach the same group of students — with renewed resolve.
The twists and turns of this year were navigated by leaning on what she picked up four years ago, arriving at GCU uncertain of her place.
“My mom was Christian, but we fell off going to church, so it didn’t stick with me. I wanted to understand what Christianity was,” she said of her decision to attend GCU. “If I do accept the Lord, what would it mean for my life?”
She did accept Him and soon found out.
“For me, it meant having someone in my life to constantly trust, to constantly go to and constantly thank for just being in my life, whether I was here or in China with this whole crazy thing going on,” she said.
She decided to student teach in China after nearly four years of study at GCU’s College of Education, majoring in elementary education. GCU helps place students abroad through a partnership with Interaction International’s Student Teaching and Global Experience program.
Thomas started teaching third grade at Yantai Huasheng International School. Right away, she was surrounded by kindness in the community.
“Everyone in the apartment would take care of me, show me around. We would have Bible studies together and do devotions together,” she said. “I fell in love with that community.”
A couple in the apartment below often invited her to dinner and to spend the evening, where she would watch them do a Bible study with their children before bed.
One day while at a mall, they stopped at a Burger King to eat lunch. The family bowed their head in prayer. Thomas had never prayed out loud before a meal, but here in China in the middle of a mall, she did.
“Even though they can’t do it in public, they had the courage,” she said. “That really had an impact on me.”
At her school, a class wasn’t called Bible study but character education, she said. “But even though they are in China and it’s risky to be a Christian in China, they still believe it is worth trying to instill Christian values.”
Thomas got along famously in a short few weeks, but when the virus hit she was sent to her apartment and told not to leave. After two weeks, she returned to the U.S. and had to quarantine here, too, while worrying how to finish her student teaching and graduate in April. An opportunity arose at Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix.
“Then it happened again,” she said.
The school closed to in-person instruction because of COVID. She was sent home to teach the students online.
“GCU equipped me with courage,” she said. “Being able to rely on God through all this, because I never know what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month. Only God knows. I put my future and my faith in Him, and hopefully He has a good plan for me.”
Thomas graduated and, rather than play it safe, she made a big decision: The principal of the school in China wanted her to return.
“I connected with so many people there. They took me in,” she said. “They helped me understand what a Christian is.”
In December, Thomas will return to teach the fourth grade, the same students she had to abruptly leave, and live in a community she said is free of any virus spread.
“She never gave up on her students,” said Dusty Sanchez, Clinical Practice Programs Manager at GCU who helped her land the student teaching assignment. “Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, she never gave up on herself, either, to complete her program and teach in her own classroom in China. Her servant leadership is an inspiration to all teacher candidates.”
Thomas will say goodbye to her mom and siblings in Arizona, with whom she renewed a tight bond over months of staying at home during the pandemic.
“Leaving this time will be a little bit harder. But I feel like I have unfinished business there,” she said. “I’m hoping to grow in my faith, so if I chose to leave there one day I can bring my experience and faith and help others in a new community.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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