I consider myself fortunate. This semester, the fall of my senior year, is my second semester abroad experience since being at Vassar. The first was sophomore summer. Both then and now, I enrolled in Hamilton College’s ACC (Associated Colleges in China) program in Beijing because I wanted to be in a big city in mainland China doing an intensive Mandarin language pledge program. More than halfway into the fall semester, I feel happy about my choice and hoped to share my experience as a way of helping other Vassar students evaluating ACC.
First off, my positives. This semester, 13 native Chinese teachers with Master’s degrees and three to eight years of experience instruct 23 students. That’s less than a one point five to one student-teacher ratio. The biggest class at ACC is five people, then later in the day, classes get smaller until the final daily one-to-one instruction for all students.
The teachers make this program what it is. They are accessible and regularly communicate through wechat (a Facebook-like app). They hold office hours between 7-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Two house-fellow-like residential advisors, one a classroom teacher and another an American recent college graduate, assist in any life activities like visa renewals, getting the best deal on running shoes, or finding nightlife activities. And, as if that wasn’t enough, after every weekly Friday morning exam, our classroom teachers take us out to lunch.
Other cultural activities include after school and weekend extracurricular events like ping pong and visits to the Great Wall, respectively. Students are also partnered with classmates to visit Chinese host families on the weekends. As I write this, I am on a sleep-over train to the city of Xi’an where myself, classmates and teachers will spend four days touring and sightseeing as part of ACC’s mid-semester break.
Having researched other similar programs on the web and by speaking with alums, I have learned that ACC is one of the best academically intense programs, comparable in many ways to UPI, Harvard in China, and Princeton in Beijing. Of course, any program has its negatives and particularities that are not for everybody.
I consider studying in the mainland a short-term sacrifice of freedom-of-speech for long-term gain of culture and language learning. To be clear, you can basically speak freely in speech, and a few Chinese people will even speak openly with foreigners that they don’t know. But in the mainland, most avoid sensitive political topics with strangers, and the classroom texts and written assignments are censored to avoid criticizing the horrors of the Communist Party or Mao. The pollution alone deserves its own article and, as I plan on doing another academic year of study in Mandarin after graduation, I am considering not coming back to the mainland because of it.
The workload is another challenge. Having done ACC twice, I feel like a language pledge is both academically rewarding but overwhelming at times. Additionally, after four hours of class on non-test days, the weeks and weeks of four to six hours of homework five nights a week can be taxing. I take full advantage of being allowed to speak English in my room to friends and family in the U.S. daily in large part to cope with the stress of homework, acclimating to being abroad and not being able to fluently express my feelings.
As you can tell, I have strong positive feelings about the program, and I encourage others to check it out. But it is not for everyone. I wanted a challenge, and I got it in ways that I am happy to have overcome. I now feel truly prepared to not only to speak Mandarin at a higher level but also to work and live abroad should my career take me there.