The 23-year-old left the United States last August to teach Chinese children how to speak English at Northeast Hope International School, a modernized boarding school located in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, China. She returned home last month.
"I knew nothing about China when I left -- and I wasn't a teacher," recalled Essner, who graduated with a degree in political science in May 2004 from Providence College in Providence, R.I.
The opportunity to go to China came about last summer when, like most recent college graduates, Essner wasn't sure what she wanted to do next. She received an e-mail from her college's career center about the opportunity so she applied for and was accepted into the program, which was also new to the college.
Prior to the trip, a Providence College professor who had connections in China, couldn't answer most of Essner's questions since it was the first year for the program, she recalled.
"He couldn't tell us who would meet us at the airport, what grades we would be teaching, what our living situation would be like -- and that was a little scary," Essner said.
But the fear disappeared soon after Essner arrived in China where she saw how nice her apartment and the school she would be teaching at really were.
Making about $350 a month, Essner taught over 100 children ages 8, 9 and 10 through four classes three times a week in classrooms complete with a DVD player and TV projector.
A Chinese instructor taught written English to the students, and Essner's job was to teach them how to speak the language by using songs, games, pictures, etc.
She was the only Midwesterner, which generated some friendly ridicule from her American peers who were all from northeastern United States. The joke was Essner's students were speaking English with Southeast Missouri accents, Essner laughed.
One thing that Essner did find a little eerie was the country's conformity.
"The students wore the same uniforms and walked exactly in a straight line, legs and arms matching movement as they walked. And at lunch, the kids weren't allowed to talk to each other," Essner said.
But they were just like American children in that they did misbehave at times, Essner said.
"I had read about China and learned about communism, but I never understood it until I was there," Essner said.
For example, Essner learned 95 percent of China's population are farmers, but they don't own their land, Essner said. And they only have what the government gives them and have to pay rent to the government, she said. "Ideally they're supposed to be equal, but they're not. And individualism is definitely not encouraged in China," Essner said.
And when the subject of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest, a series of student-led, pro-democracy, pro-socialism demonstrations in the People's Republic of China that led to a massacre, was brought up, most of the Chinese denied the fact that people were killed at it, Essner said.
"Every person had the same reply: 'Your media is wrong. No one was killed in Tiananmen Square,'" Essner said, adding, "But that's communist government for you."
That said, Essner said there are also good aspects of China, such as the health care system and the people in China were very nice.
During her time in China, Essner was able to travel when the school would close about five days every month so the children could visit their families.
Essner said she had Internet access to keep her updated on the happenings in America, like the presidential election, the World Series and Scott Peterson's trial.
"I never really felt that far from home because of it," Essner said about the Internet, which also helped her communicate with family and friends.
The Christian also had to do without church in the country of mostly Buddhists. The closest Catholic church was in Beijing, about 13 hours from where she was staying, Essner said.
The most difficult part of being gone was missing the funeral of one her friend's father and missing holidays with family.
But Essner doesn't regret her experience.
"Every single day I learned something new. The job was a challenge, but for me it wasn't the job that was the hardest, it was the everyday living," Essner said.
Looking back Essner said a lot of things feel easier to her now since she was able to, in China, order meat at the grocery store and figure out how to pay for it or tell cab driver to stop.
Traveling abroad is nothing new for Essner. The summer before her sophomore year at Dexter High School, she was an exchange student in Australia, and in the summer of 2002, Essner worked as an intern for the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. But the trip to China was different because she hadn't studied the country and didn't know the language, she said.
Since returning to the United States nearly a month ago, Essner admits she's learned a lot about herself and has a greater appreciation for her freedom and the country that gave it to her.
"When I was over there I became more proud of America, not in every way, but I realized how valuable a democracy is and what it means to be able to write an opinion in the newspaper or to protest something," Essner said. "You should just be thankful to be an American citizen."