College Life / Light Fellowship 2020 / Quarantine Diaries

Studying Abroad Online Through the Light Fellowship

This year, I was the recipient of the Richard U. Light Fellowship, an award that fully funds Yale students while they intensively study an East Asian language (Chinese, Japanese, or Korean) abroad. If all had gone according to plan, I’d currently be in Bejing attending the Inter-University Program (IUP) at Tsinghua University. Unfortunately, nothing about 2020 has gone according to plan, so I’m doing my “immersive study abroad” online. And yes, that makes it neither immersive nor abroad. 

For a full review of the IUP experience, check out this blog post I wrote at the end of the program.

How do you study abroad from home?

Typically, IUP places students into either 3 small group classes+1 one on one class or 2 one on one classes. Since the professors live in China, classes are scheduled in Bejing Time. They are willing to accommodate students from 8 AM to 10 PM Bejing Time which is 7 PM (the previous day) to 9 AM in my time zone. After submitting a 5-minute video of me speaking Chinese, taking an extensive online placement test, and a 30-minute Zoom interview, I was placed into 2 one on one classes.

On my first day, I got up early and started my morning routine. I was in the middle of writing in my journal when I was interrupted by a barrage of WeChat messages. 

Friendly reminder that your class has started! Your professor is waiting for you in their personal meeting room on Zoom.

Your professor is still waiting, please log in as soon as possible.

That’s how I found out IUP had scheduled my class for an hour earlier than they confirmed with me during my interview. I was 40 minutes late to my first class and literally living my recurring stress dream. I’m signed up to take 7-9 AM classes, five days a week.

Luckily, neither of my professors planned to teach on the first day of class. Instead, I spoke to both of them about my Chinese, how I’ve progressed thus far, and my goals for the summer.

A day in the life 

I use the same book, supplied by IUP, for both classes. At 7 AM, I log-in for vocabulary class. My professor leads a conversation about anything from politics to my childhood. The goal is to cover all 20 of the day’s vocabulary words and use them in different contexts. I’ve heard it said that you need to hear new words used at least three times before you can truly understand them. These conversations serve as a starting place for that. My professor pushes me to articulate my position on social issues and current events in Chinese. It kinda feels like being interviewed since it’s one-on-one, but I enjoy it.  

At 8 AM, I go to my class about sentence structure. Each chapter of the book has approximately 15 sentence patterns that I should learn to use. For those who haven’t taken Chinese before, sentence patterns usually include function words like prepositions or conjunctions. Learning sentence patterns is key to writing complex sentences and understanding how to organize your ideas within them. 

A sentence pattern might look something like this:

_________, 除此之外 (besides this), __________

My second professor builds on the new words I learn in vocab class and sets up situations for me to use those words with the sentence patterns. Honestly, it kind of feels like I’m playing an advanced version of Madlibs where he knows the sentences and also makes up the words that go in the blanks. I’m not the best at it. I make mistakes, but the one-on-one nature of the course makes that feel okay. There’s no one to compare to, and no one to hide behind if I don’t know the answer. There’s a certain freedom to that which has helped me fall in love with the process of figuring this language out.  

After class, my first professor sends me a short dictation quiz over WeChat which I complete after breakfast. I send her a picture of the quiz along with any questions. After that, I spend 3-4 hours throughout the day reading the passage for the next day and copying characters. 

Is this worth it?

Even though my “study abroad” isn’t what I hoped it would be, I’m glad I’m doing it. Each university has its own set of textbooks, professors, and teaching philosophy. It’s nice to explore different strategies for accomplishing the same goal: to be able to read boba menus learn Chinese. 

My peers who have gone on Light Fellowship in previous years have blogged about their culture shock or adventures in places I’ll have to wait indefinitely to visit. Studying in Arkansas is definitely not the same. I don’t get to see the characters I learn in organic ways. The closest thing to an “immersive experience” I get is to attempt to force my family to speak only Chinese when we sit down for dinner. It’s too early to tell, but I’m hopeful. Maybe one day, I’ll get to actually live abroad, and I’ll already be able to read Chinese when I do.

Update 2/18/21: I didn’t know it at the time, but I did get to go abroad. You can follow that journey at The Gap


  • Megan Briggs
    June 23, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Loved reading about this thanks for sharing 🙂 Glad it’s going well so far and hopeful for you that it’ll be so worth it when you get to visit someday!

    • serenapuang
      June 24, 2020 at 1:23 pm

      Thanks for reading Megan! Miss you <3


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