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December 17, 2012

Chinese teacher learned American education methods in Oneonta

The Daily Star

---- — An experiment of “East meets West” began for sixth-grade students at the Percy I. Bugbee School in the autumn of 1947. It was early October, and the students were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their new teacher — from China.

Bugbee School Principal Willis P. Porter had become acquainted with Yen Yi-Yun while he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, stationed in China during World War II. Through his efforts, Yi-Yun, who also was known as Isabella, was brought here to teach. The experiment was the first of its kind at a New York state teachers college. Bugbee was then a training school for the Oneonta State Teachers College, known today as the State University College at Oneonta.

Ever since the students were notified of Yi-Yun’s appointment as their teacher, members of the sixth grade had been planning for her arrival. Among the gifts they prepared was a diary of daily events in the classroom since the school opened in September. They kept a close watch on her travels, through correspondence.

This was Yi-Yun’s first visit to the United States. It wasn’t an easy or quick trip in getting here, as she boarded a ship Sept. 13. A typhoon off the coast of Japan caused a considerable delay. She arrived in San Francisco and took a train eastbound.

Finally, Wednesday, Nov. 5, about 30 sixth-grade students waited in the dampness of the D&H Railroad Station, today’s Stella Luna Ristorante on Market Street, for the Binghamton-Albany bound passenger train.

As described by The Binghamton Press, “A small woman in a blue coat, carrying a blue muff-purse, was escorted from the train by Willis P. Porter.”

“Bruce Salisbury, red-headed sixth grader who towered over the little Chinese teacher, gave the official welcome and introduced each of his classmates, individually.”

The class invited Yi-Yun to a dinner planned by the sixth grade at the school that night. She took up her teaching duties Friday. While in Oneonta, she resided at the Rosenheim residence on Union Street.

Yi-Yun spoke highly of her sixth-grade students, explaining that here the children do more work than in China, where the teacher does a great deal more than the students.

According to The Oneonta Star, Yi-Yun was a graduate of National Peking University in 1938, and had been teaching in China since that time. During World War II, she had been teaching at National Southwestern Associated University in Kunming, in interior China.

Yi-Yun said that classes had to be started in the early morning so they could be completed before bombing raids began. Several buildings of the university, to which three major educational institutions on the coast had moved shortly after the outbreak of the war, were destroyed by bombs dropped by the Japanese.

Isabella Yi-Yun came to the U.S. on a one-year leave of absence to teach at Bugbee and learn American methods of teaching to take back to her country. She said she came from a cultivated family, as her grandfather was the first Chinese student to study abroad, getting his education at a school in England around 1875. When he returned to China, he translated Western books and culture into Chinese.

It was hardly a quiet summer recess in 1948 for Yi-Yun, as she was selected by the American Association of University Women as one of two representatives to their International Seminar in July at the University of Maryland. She also visited teacher training institutions and public schools in New York and Chicago.

The results of this experiment will hopefully be learned in time, perhaps from former students, as searches in archives at SUNY Oneonta and newspaper accounts have been so far unfruitful.

This weekend: As a result of enormous growth in the 1880s, Oneonta planned for a bigger water supply.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at