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While teaching English in China’s Shandong province, Jesse Haladay picked up communication skills that would eventually lead to a career on Capitol Hill.
“I definitely acquired my public speaking skills from teaching,” said the new legislative assistant to Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.). “I was also able to absorb the culture and try to understand where people from different backgrounds are coming from.”
The Baltimore native first expressed an interest in teaching after a military history class in high school. ‘‘I wanted to be able to interest others in learning about the past,” he said.
After graduating from Skidmore College, Haladay tapped his proficiency in Mandarin to join a program that sent recent graduates to a university in China to teach English and American culture.
“I taught freshmen and sophomores at Qufu Normal University. These students would then go on to teach English in oral middle schools in other parts of China,” he said.
Haladay was immediately confronted with a culture clash when trying to interact with his students.
“In a U.S. language class, once you’ve reached a certain point of vocabulary, the teacher would engage you in conversation in that foreign language,” he said. “In Chinese classes, most of them would just memorize the words, so trying to engage them in a sort of organic conversation was really difficult.”
Haladay soon developed a way to spark in-class discussions.
“I had them watch ‘Star Wars’ because they had no idea what it was and I thought it was an important piece of American culture to learn,’’ he said. ‘‘We’d break down certain phrases used in the film and just try and engage the class.’’
After two years of teaching, Haladay returned to the U.S., and at the urging of a friend, he joined the 2006 Senate campaign of then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). The experience led to an internship with former Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D), as well as several positions with Cardin’s Senate legislative team.
Last month, Haladay moved to Altmire’s staff. Haladay advises the Pennsylvania Democrat on trade, defense and foreign affairs, among other issues, drawing on his time in China.
“When talking about foreign relations, it gives me a better understanding when working with the policies,” he said.
Haladay finds other benefits from his teaching days.
“It really took me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It helped me recognize how groups of people coming together might not agree, but you have to make sure you understand them and that they understand where you are coming from to get them to compromise.”
Relating that sentiment to the politics of Washington, “I certainly look at the Hill as a place where there’s always need for compromise,” he said.
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