After 8 weeks of waking up at 6 AM, a one-woman play about urbanization, and online finals, I’ve finished my virtual “study abroad” experience. While I might not have insights on living abroad/culture shock (yet), I did learn a lot about studying Chinese. And since the Inter-University Program (IUP) Chinese Center at Tsinghua will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, I hope my insights can be helpful to others considering IUP/studying abroad online.
I’ve also included a list of all the Light Fellowship blogs I could find (see bottom) because I found other peoples’ insights really helpful when applying for the Light Fellowship and related programs.
Due to COVID-19, IUP reduced their 2020 summer tuition from $5,995 to $3,600. I had my tuition expenses paid through the Light Fellowship, but I had to pay through two separate international wire transfers (≈$50/each) which the fellowship didn’t cover.
On the bright side, IUP provided a digital copy of my textbook free of charge, so the money ended up balancing out.
Application Process/Before the Program:
In the process of applying to IUP, I had to submit a written statement (in English) stating my language goals, pay $50 application fee, solicit a letter of recommendation, and film a 3-5 minute video of me speaking in Chinese.
After I was accepted, I had a language interview with three professors to talk about my language goals and verify my Chinese language abilities. It was largely informal, but there was a reading and listening test. My interview was June 2nd, so it had been a minute since Chinese class. I’d recommend brushing up on some vocab beforehand.
During the interview process, I had to choose between getting a Comprehensive Course (综合课) or a Listening & Speaking Course (听说课) placement. In Comprehensive Courses, students prepare for class by reading a text and studying vocabulary. In-class time is primarily used to practice listening and speaking while class preparation is focused on reading and writing. In contrast, Listening & Speaking Course students prepare by for class by listening to a recording. The focus is on developing speaking and listening skills, so there’s not as much of an emphasis on reading/writing.
As I’ve mentioned in my blog post on learning Chinese, writing/reading Chinese is pretty challenging for me. There’s a pretty big gap between what I can say/understand in Chinese vs what I can read/write. I was pretty tempted to opt for the Listening & Speaking Course, but ultimately I decided to go for the Comprehensive Course because I felt that opting for Listening & Speaking would only make the gap between my Chinese skills bigger.
I placed into a textbook published by IUP called Talk of the Times (聚焦当代). This is pretty standard for students that have completed two semesters of Yale L5 Heritage Chinese. Even though I prepared for class with a written passage, I still had an audio recording for each chapter. The format was pretty similar to my Yale classes in that respect.
Another choice you can have to make before you start classes is if you want to take two 1-on-1 classes or three 3-on-1 classes + one 1-on-1 class. I opted for the two 1-on-1 classes because of time constraints and because of my learning style. But I have friends in the program who took small group classes because they wanted the exposure to Chinese and to make friends in class.
For a day in the life of classes, check out my post on virtual study abroad here!
- Lots of flexibility! With one-on-one classes, both my professors were willing to adjust plans/conversation topics around my needs and interests. You can even supply your own learning material if the textbooks they provide don’t interest you.
- Opportunities for circumlocution (when you have to say a lot of words to explain a concept because you don’t know a specific vocab word). Due to the online format, the language pledge is impossible to enforce, but since I was in 1-on-1 class, there was a lot of time for me to talk. My professors were very patient when I didn’t have the vocabulary to say what I wanted to say and gave me space to try.
- Many of the people who study at IUP are not college students. I’ve heard some people cite this as a con in previous years. They felt it was prohibitive to forming deep friendships, but at digital IUP, it was really nice to meet people who were all in different life stages studying Chinese. I think it actually made it easier for us to have big group virtual hangouts.
- Cultural Exchange! Even though I was in the US, taking Chinese classes through IUP still gave me a window into Chinese culture and political thought that I don’t get at Yale.
- The pacing of the program is really backloaded. The beginning of the program had very little written homework besides class preparation. But after midterms (week 4), I had to prepare a 5-8 minute presentation, a 15 minute one-woman skit, and study for finals. I wish the projects were distributed evenly, but it was still manageable.
- COVID-19. Obviously, the digital format changed a lot about the program. I didn’t get the immersive experience, and there were fewer organic opportunities for me to practice my Chinese outside of class.
- I had to wake up really early for class. Other people took classes at night time, but it wouldn’t work with my schedule. IUPs time constraints meant that I had to take 7 AMs.
- Zoom is really finicky in China. Zoom would randomly kick either my or my prof off the call at times. It was a pain to get back in. In one of my classes, we actually gave up on Zoom and used Wechat instead. We’ll see how long that’s an option…
Advice for future digital light fellows:
- Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself when picking your materials! I did not want to take classes that would center around learning economics-related vocabulary, and I said so during my interview. Both my professors said that I was placed in my classes because the textbook was more aligned with my interests. As I said before, you can even supply your own materials. To do this, you have to have ideas going in.
- Set specific appointments with yourself to work on Chinese. It’s easy to get lost in studying/accidentally forget to do it. I found that it was best to set specific times to prepare for class and block out my schedule.
- Be proactive about engaging with fellow IUP-ers. IUP put us in a Wechat group together, but they didn’t organize any activities for us. One person in my program organized google hangouts once a month, and it was really nice. Since we could speak English, I think we were able to make fast friends. The fact that we were all in very different contexts/life stages gave us something to talk about.
- Zoom isn’t the only way to have class. If you experience technical difficulties with Zoom, switch to something else (like Skype) early on! Problems with firewalls/connectivity generally don’t just go away. It’s better to make the switch early on rather than waste time trying to get Zoom to work if it just won’t.
Was it worth it?
Short answer, yes. I really enjoyed my time studying Chinese through IUP. According to other IUP-ers who have attended the in-person classes in the past, the quality of teaching is consistent with what it was pre-pandemic.
The 1-on-1 instruction I received was tailored to my needs. This was inherently more valuable to me than taking another semester (or two) of Chinese at Yale. My top priority in picking a Chinese program was to find one that would motivate me to keep learning Chinese, not just force me to memorize a bunch of characters. IUP was that for me.
I’m so thankful to the Light Fellowship for this opportunity to study Chinese and hope I’ll have the opportunity to go to Beijing for real some day.
Other (more conventional) Light Fellowship Blogs:
One of the best resources for prospective Light Fellows is the blogs that past recipients kept during their time abroad. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to find, so I reached out to friends, looked through the peer reviews, and googled all I could find.
This list is not exhaustive by any means. If you’re looking for a program that isn’t here, here are the most helpful peer reviews Light Fellowship compiles for their website! Additionally, if you know of a Light Fellowship blog I missed, feel free to drop it in the comments.