Lifelong Collaborators

Chinese teacher Xin-Yi Fergusson introduced Maggie Varland ’07 to Chinese, and now the two of them grow the language program together.
The first time Maggie Varland ’07 helped Xin-Yi Fergusson with Chinese instruction, she was still a Collegiate student, a Senior with an interest in the intricacies of world languages. 

Fergusson, encouraged by former Head of the Lower School Dr. Jill S. Hunter, started an after-school Chinese club the fall of Varland’s Senior year. The club was meant to act as a pilot program for a new Chinese language course that would be implemented in the Lower School the following year, and Fergusson, who had been teaching similar courses voluntarily at her church, needed assistance managing the Collegiate children in her care. Varland heard about the opportunity, and she and her best friend Helen Huang ’08 eagerly jumped on board. 

“I heard about a new Chinese program being offered after school, and I just thought, Wow, that’s something I want to be part of,” Varland recalls. “Even though I didn’t speak Chinese, I loved languages, and I wanted to learn as many as I could. I thought this would be a chance to both help introduce students to a new language and maybe learn a little bit myself. Xin-Yi class fascinated me. I was hooked”  

Varland remembers sitting with Lower Schoolers, rapt, as Fergusson showed the students instructional Chinese videos illustrating the etymology and history of Chinese characters. As she helped Fergusson after school, Varland, who studied French as a student at Collegiate, began noticing an enthusiasm for Chinese growing within her. She would catch herself writing Chinese characters in her physics books, studying Chinese culture in her free time and giddily looking forward to the time she would spend absorbing Fergusson’s after-school lessons. 

After Collegiate, Varland fully embraced her new interest in Chinese language and culture. She went on to study Chinese at the University of Virginia and, after graduation, she moved to China, where she taught English and pursued a master’s degree in international business at Hult International Business School’s Shanghai campus. 

Varland kept in touch with Fergusson and frequently called in to Fergusson’s Chinese classes, answering students’ questions about her experience living in China. It wasn’t until after Varland graduated Collegiate that Fergusson comprehended the depth of her influence. “When she was helping me with the after-school club, I never thought of her as a student of mine, because she was my assistant,” Fergusson says. “But then I learned she went on to study Chinese, and that she moved to China, and I realized how much of an influence my class had on her. I felt connected to her in a new way.” 

To be closer to family, Varland eventually moved back to the States, in 2019, and began giving Chinese tutoring lessons to children in Richmond. In the summer of 2022, when Fergusson moved to the Upper School to teach Chinese and a subsequent position in the Lower School opened, Fergusson strongly recommended Varland. “Seeing how strong her Chinese is, and understanding her cultural knowledge of contemporary China, I know how successful Maggie will be in continuing our Chinese program in the Lower School,” Fergusson says. “I know how smart she is. I know her work ethic. It’s like I’m handing my baton to her. And it’s amazing, watching both her and our Chinese program grow from day one. We couldn’t have found a better person for the job.” 

Now, the two collaborate on how to structure the Chinese curriculum to best fit the development of world language students. “Of course, we’re teaching students vocabulary and different ways to communicate, but we’re also giving students that cultural background that makes the language feel natural,” Varland explains. “Essentially, no matter the language, we’re all trying to say the same thing. We’re all trying to connect with each other. It’s really astonishing what can happen when you take down the boundaries between languages.”

The relationship that blossomed over a shared love of language, beginning with a budding language program in the early 2000s, continues, with the focus, as always, on nurturing students’ understanding of the world and how we communicate. “It’s really just so phenomenal to be back here and doing something that I never thought I’d love so much,” Varland says. “I had such tremendous language teachers at Collegiate. The connection that Xin-Yi and I have has its origins in the strengths of our world language program at Collegiate. I’m so happy to continue making those connections with Collegiate students.”