I am writing in response to three of my former classmates who recently uploaded a blog imploring those contemplating studying in Nanjing to consider their advice. They provide a lot to think about, but they also make many claims that are either subjective and not applicable to the majority of students’ experiences in the program or simply not true. As a supporter of the program and someone who thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nanjing, I feel it is my duty to let you know how my experience relates to theirs.
Principally, I believe that my former classmates gravely misrepresented the quality of the instructors and program director. A main concern of those classmates was that the workload was very heavy and that the instructors did not seem to take our complaints seriously. I argue that while the workload is heavier than other third-party study abroad programs, the instructors were not only willing to adjust to our needs but they were also very concerned about our ability to enjoy our experience in Nanjing and maintain our personal health. As a result, our workload became easily manageable after the first two weeks and the majority of the students were satisfied that our teachers had met our needs. Furthermore, the instructors were open to suggestions of field trip ideas and they consistently did their utmost to provide us with opportunities to learn more about Nanjing and China. I believe that my classmates had unrealistic expectations of what it is to participate in a Hopkins program abroad. We were not tourists. Instead, we were given an opportunity to intensively study and explore of one of China’s most dynamic and historic cities, a once-in-a
lifetime opportunity which can be built upon with further travel. The program is not officially affiliated with SAIS and is not integrated with the Nanjing University campus, which may not be ideal, but you are free to go on campus and explore. Your roommate will also be a University of Nanjing student who can help you get into buildings such as the library on campus. Additionally, thanks to the program director at HIN, you will be given opportunities to work and volunteer in Nanjing that are unique to the program. In the end, the experience you come away with will be a reflection of the effort you put in. If you approach each encounter or obstacle as a learning experience, then you will come away with a wealth of knowledge. If you make your best effort to learn from your instructors, there is no way you can do poorly in class. If you make yourself flexible and accept that you are no longer a tourist but a scholar of China, then you will not be disappointed.
Below, I have attached segments of their original blog post in italics with my comments in regular text. At the end, I have included another summary of my main points.
The program states 9 credits of Chinese but, in reality, the workload is equal to 12 credits. We had an average of 3 hours of class, four days a week. – I actually can’t argue with this, it would have been nice to get 12 credits for the hours put in. This is a valid critique of the way in which the program is advertized.
In the first month of the program, a conservative estimate for the amount of Chinese homework assigned is approximately 5 hours per night. Of course, this amount of homework would be nearly impossible to complete by anyone who values getting at least 7 hours of sleep. – Actually, given 4 – 7 hours of class per day, 5 hours of Chinese homework, and 7 hours of sleeping, you still have 5-8 hours of free time. (This can be determined with relatively simple algebra: 4+5+7 = 16, and 24-16 = 8, etc.). If we budgeted our time well, on the days with no evening class, we had a maximum of 3 hours of reading and/or writing, which still left us with 5 hours of free time. That is plenty of time for lunch, dinner, shopping, exploring, chatting with our roommates, or watching TV if we were so inclined.
One of the refrains most commonly said by all teachers was, “You guys look tired!” – If we looked tired, it was most often because we had used our time inefficiently, not because the workload was intolerable. I am certainly guilty of spending excess time browsing the internet when I was supposed to be sleeping, which made me tired but did not involve sacrificing my work or diminishing my experience in Nanjing.
At times, some students would be publicly shamed by teachers for not completing all assignments. – I only remember three students being shamed for not completing all assignments on the second day of class, because the majority of the class had finished the assignments and the three students who did not finish them had made no effort to ask the instructor for help. Perhaps on other occasions, the instructor vented her frustration that certain students could not remember words and grammar structures previously studied.
In fact, one of us was personally and falsely accused in front of the entire class for “going clubbing” on a Tuesday night instead of completing a homework assignment. In reality, the accused had struggled to complete the large amount of homework in his room the whole night. – Sometimes the subtleties involved in joking are lost in translation.
According to our teachers, getting a decent night’s sleep was not important. It is precisely this lack of concern for students’ personal health that led to an absolutely ridiculous situation. – This is absolutely not true; many students who experienced difficulties adjusting to the workload in the first two weeks (before it was reduced) were encouraged by teachers to put health before work, and not at the expense of grades. Our program director, especially, was constantly concerned with our happiness and well-being. There was absolutely no lack of concern for students’ personal health, and I cannot explain where this idea originated.
At one point during the first month two students broke down in tears in class and two students were sick all the time. – Frustration and illness are not always caused by schoolwork. For those of us who are not close with the three authors of China From Your Dorm Desk (which would be the rest of the students on the trip), they do not have the authority to determine what caused our frustration or illness. I can speak to the fact that some of us were not used to the environment, including foreign pollens, of a continent halfway across the globe from our homes, and many of us had problems in our personal lives such as homesickness that caused us frustration.
One girl was a heritage Chinese speaker, one girl had recently completed a summer language intensive program, and the other two students would always get ridiculed. – The girl who had recently completed a summer language intensive program (i.e. me) had only studied Chinese for two years prior, so at the beginning of the semester had only completed the equivalent of three years, not much unlike the authors of China From Your Dorm Desk, who also had spent three or more years studying the language and who had collectively “spent considerable time in China.” Also, the five students on the program who did not author China From Your Dorm Desk are not sure which “other two students” would “always get ridiculed.”
Perhaps the facet of Chinese language study that was the most disappointing was the one dimensional aspect of learning. The program put barely any emphasis on speaking and listening in an environment outside of the classroom. It did not take advantage of our Chinese roommates who could have played a more active role in our learning experience. – I don’t think it is completely ridiculous to expect us to spend time chatting with our roommates without an explicit schedule given to us by our teachers. And each of our three Chinese teachers as well as the program director were willing to have 1-on-1 sessions with us for hours at a time however many times we needed each week.
Unlike in Baltimore, where you are allowed at least two absences per semester, on this program mandatory attendance at every single class meeting is expected. If you are sick and must miss Chinese class, it is very difficult to make up. — False: I missed two classes accidentally and was entirely capable of making up whatever I had missed with no detriment to my final grade.
Due to the pressure of the program, there were always several students sick. By the end of the program, people’s bodies were physically breaking down from exhaustion, which required multiple hospital visits. – The only person who was actually hospitalized was me, and my illness was an accident completely unrelated to stress. Here I might add that our wonderful program director went far beyond her duties to bring me to the emergency room, wait with me through the night until I had surgery the next day, and visit me during each day of my recovery, even going so far as to bring me food and wash my clothes.
On any language intensive program in China the workload will be immense. However, because it is a Hopkins program, your grades will count, meaning you cannot take a break. – That is something those of you considering taking the program should consider for yourselves—do you want your grades abroad to count toward your GPA? (I truly believe that the workload was manageable.)
There was also a complete disconnect with the content course professors and Chinese professors. When there was too much work in the content courses, Chinese was sacrificed. – Definitely not true; our content courses were very understanding and pushed our due dates back multiple times for various assignments. They even stated on several occasions that Chinese was the most important class and that we should focus on it.
When students complained about the content courses being too much on top of Chinese, nothing was done to seek an appropriate balance. – I have no idea where this claim is coming from, as the due dates for virtually all of our content course assignments were pushed back.
Finally, we were surprised to discover that the undergraduate program was not at all connected to the beautiful SAIS Center or its resources including the library with wifi. – This should not come as a surprise; SAIS and Krieger/Whiting are affiliated through the same University, but they are not the same entity.
The undergrads must share only four SAIS passes which was awkward at best. – To clarify, we each had our own pass into the building. It was library cards that we had to share. That being said, I had a SAIS library card in my possession all semester and nobody asked to borrow it. Honestly, the library is very nice, but most of us actually worked in our rooms because it is more convenient.
We also had no access to a Nanjing University library – (the program is not actually integrated with Nanjing University, so this is something to be aware of) – so the only place to study was in our own dorm rooms tethered to Ethernet cords because there was no wifi – (this is a cultural thing; Chinese students are not treated as consumers the same way American students are, and so it is typical for there to be no wifi).
CONTENT COURSES: Sociology
… assignments were graded rigorously – (to clarify, they were graded fairly, not harshly).
If you think that this class will be an easy A while abroad, you will be sorely mistaken. Despite the fact that there is so much Chinese homework, you will receive no break in this class – (except when all the due dates are pushed back).
It is also a writing intensive class, a fact that the Hopkins-in-Nanjing website does not care to mention, and it is not counted as a writing course. – Okay, yeah, it would be nice to get writing intensive credit for this and the domestic politics course.
CONTENT COURSES: Chinese Domestic Politics
Not only were classes dull… – This is a bit subjective; some of us enjoyed the lectures, especially since if you paid attention the lectures recapped the most important points from the readings and helped provide us with an idea of what would appear on the midterm and final.
Every Friday there are mandatory field trips. The initial field trips covered the essential historical and cultural monuments in Nanjing. There was a tour guide for every destination and one could not easily explore on one’s own. Also, many of the excursions were free or very inexpensive so a good question to ask is where your $25,000 Hopkins tuition is going. – Hopkins is a private university, which means that it reserves the right to charge you for enrollment. Do you think all 56,000 of your tuition dollars during a regular semester are going to living expenses in Baltimore?
During the national holiday which occurs the first week of October, there were no field trips, despite the fact that every other major program in China takes its students on a trip. – National holiday is a holiday for Chinese people; would you really expect your American professors to take their Thanksgiving break off to take foreign students on a tour? It is important to be realistic. You are not going to always be coddled, but the teachers are more than willing to help you plan and arrange your trip if you need them to.
It is important to note that the program did not take students to Shanghai, a $20, hour and a half train ride away. – Maybe you could go on your own during National Holiday?
On some occasions, it would have been a better use of our time to hang out with our roommates improving our spoken Chinese, interacting with locals, or exploring Nanjing by ourselves and not with tour groups. The scope of some field trips were often too specific and of little interest to individual students – (I believe the authors here mean to say “the field trips were sometimes to places that are not famous historic or cultural sites,” since multiple other individuals enjoyed the in-depth and engaging experiences offered to us at places such as Nanjing Gulou Hospital, the Jiangsu County CDC, or the Yangzhou traffic police office, which we could not have had on any other program).
One of the most common things we heard before going to Nanjing is that “Nanjing is a livable city.” However, after living there for over three months, we are not sure why anyone would make such a remark. With a population of seven million, Nanjing has only two subway lines, and cabs can be very difficult to find because of the lack of public transportation. — This is to be expected in a second-tier city in a country with developing status.
Buses are overcrowded, and the bus system is complicated and not easy to use as a foreigner. – I am unsure whether the authors of China From Your Dorm Desk were aware that they were signing up to go to China. Maybe they should have been informed that the world’s most populous country is crowded and that people in China speak Chinese so the signs are going to be in Chinese. At the same time, if you are considering going on this program but do not want to be crowded or have to navigate using Chinese, then maybe you should also reevaluate going to China.
Due to the rapid development near campus, there was constant construction 24/7 outside our dorm. – Again, one of the experiences that goes along with living in a developing nation.
Finally, China is a difficult place to be in for any period of time. – Let me just repeat that sentence in case its subtleties were lost the first time: “China is a difficult place to be in for any period of time.” I think this statement says more about the authors than it does about the program. If you do not think you can deal with construction, air pollution, or the other facets of life in modern China that are inconvenient by Western standards, then maybe you should not go at all. Or maybe, you could open your mind and take the incredible opportunity afforded you to experience the way people in another part of the world live, even if it is not always pleasant. But I’d like to remind you that you stand to gain so much from sincerely going into the world and connecting with the real people there.
Like the authors of the original blog post, I also encourage you to think carefully before selecting this program. Different people will have different experiences, and if you are not willing to open your mind you will not have a good time. On the other hand, if you are willing to put in the effort, the rewards you reap will be enormous. True, the program is young, but the teachers are incredibly flexible, supportive, attentive, and caring. This is true for my experience and it is true for the experiences of the remaining four classmates who took part in the program this fall. Moreover, the teachers take an interest in your life outside of class, going so far as to participate in field trips with you or to invite you to spend time exploring Nanjing with them. The program director is an incredible woman, her husband is a wonderful man, and together they are willing to anything they can to provide you every opportunity to experience Nanjing, practice your Chinese, and succeed in China.
As far as field trips go, the program director welcomes suggestions and usually selects what the majority of students are interested in. Many of us actually wanted to go to the CDC and when she suggested it we responded favorably, but had a majority of students asked to go to Shanghai instead she would have accommodated us. As it is, she took us to Anhui Province, Yangzhou, and Hangzhou, as well as many places around Nanjing. If you are willing to communicate openly with her, she will listen to you and adjust her plans accordingly.
Some other benefits of the program include our roommates and the volunteer and work opportunities available to us. Our roommates undergo a screening process, and as a result we end up rooming with very interesting and wonderful people. Your roommate is there because he or she wants to meet you, so he or she will be willing to practice Chinese with you on a regular basis. If you put in an effort, you can easily become good friends (at the end of the program my roommate invited me to visit her hometown). Also, if you are interested in teaching English (meeting some wonderful people in the process), there are both volunteer and paid opportunities available. My experience volunteering at Bainian Vocational Institute was one of the best experiences I had in China and would not have been possible without Ningping Yu, the extraordinary program director mentioned above.
In summary, your experience is going to be what you make of it. I implore you to keep in mind that the authors of China From Your Dorm Room represent a minority of our group and that their opinions are not shared by all. If you are interested, check out the other blog posts on the HIN WordPress and you will get a taste for the extent and diversity of our experiences. Also, if you have any questions, do not be afraid to contact me through facebook.