Studying abroad means positioning yourself to receive the best, yet sometimes unexpected experiences. In this post, Jennifer Conner talks about observing the Chinese culture firsthand, interning at an English language school, and building long-lasting relationships with her friends.
“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Studying abroad was something I went into very excited about, having planned for it for years. I was purely beside myself, ready for the chance to learn a second language, interact with a new culture, and have a blissful reprieve from my regular taxing engineering classes. A semester of great authentic food and no differential equations? I was biting at the bit for the chance.
And, indeed, I did experience everything that had initially fired me up for my semester abroad; my language skills sky-rocketed and I was observing firsthand how daily life in my host country differed from my familiar, broadening my understanding of societal and cultural interactions. However, the most impactful and rewarding experiences of all were the unexpected lessons and relationships I collected along the way. These were the tiny breadcrumbs, entirely unforeseen yet irrevocably redirecting my path through life, forever. So, if you’re up for a little journey, ahead I will share with you my unexpected takeaways from my semester abroad.
Our Shanghai orientation tour.
I studied in Shanghai, China during the spring semester of 2018. I hung up my materials science and engineering major and instead took Chinese and history and was lucky enough to participate in an internship. At the time of choosing courses, the internship appealed to me because hands-on work just sounded way more fun than sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk. But little did I know what started as an outlet for my aversion to lectures would become an essential lens for the understanding of the culture around me and a stepping stone towards my future career.
The English tutoring school I interned at.
My internship was with an English school, where I helped with the marketing team and was an English teacher. I had some experience with teaching and tutoring before, but not to the degree that this internship exposed me to. I was in charge of classes of children aged two to six. Let me tell you, the word ‘adorable’ does not even come close to describing these little angels. They radiated elation, excitement, and, to my surprise, high fashion (Shanghai toddlers rock the name-brands like nobody's business). I completely fell in love with teaching, and upon my return to the states, became a TA and a peer mentor at my home institution. I’m not sure where my passion for teaching will lead me, but I am forever grateful for this internship opening my eyes to what makes me happy. I know it has changed my career trajectory, definitely for the better.
Furthermore, I learned a lot through being on the marketing team of the school. Interacting with my coworkers provided me with an added layer of understanding of the culture I was surrounded by. I noticed differences in employer-employee communication, how meetings were conducted, and even the hours different employees took, all of which informed my understanding of social interactions and ultimately Chinese culture in a way I would have never been able to had I not been able to experience the inner workings of a Chinese company. This internship helped me better incorporate with the new environment I was experiencing, pulling me out of my unproductive existence as a passive observer.
One of my classes at TLC.
One of the methods of marketing the school that was particularly interesting was the use of the app WeChat. Now, I’m assuming many of you have not heard of this app, so I’ll try my best to explain. It is the everything app of China. It is used for messaging, for sharing ‘moments’ (kind of like a Facebook wall) of both the personal and professional variety, and is a method of payment, both between people casually (like Venmo) and with stores and restaurants (like ApplePay), all consolidated into one app. Using this app was certainly an unexpected takeaway from my stay in China. Though WeChat pay has not really caught on stateside, I still use this app every day to keep in contact with some of the people I met in China.
This brings me to my final takeaway from China (for this post at least): the spectacularly strong relationships I made during my study abroad. Now, at first, this might not seem so unexpected. I, of course, knew I was going to meet many people during my time abroad. However, I really did not expect how amazing and how lasting these friendships would be. Epiphany struck as I was waving goodbye. And it was shattering. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I did or saw that had made my study abroad experience so memorable and fulfilling. It was the people I met, the people I explored with, the people I grew with, and the people I loved.
The Jinmao Tower on WeChat.
How special it is to find people you never want to let go of.
And, thanks to WeChat, among other things, I am still in contact with many of the people I met abroad. I still talk with my mentor Colin Speakman of CAPA, as well as the members of the CAPA group that studied alongside me during the spring semester of 2018. CJ, Rachel, Connor, Tarafinah, Luisa, Jolena, Nicole, Ian, Sam, Hannah, Emily, Cameron, and David. It might seem silly to list off all their names. Then again, how silly would it be to be anonymous with the amazing friendships I have made? They are not simply part of the crowd. They are my crowd.
The CAPA Spring 2018 gang in Old Shanghai.
As I write this, I have just returned from my spring break trip where I visited many of the members of my CAPA squad, and tomorrow my boyfriend Jacob, whom I met abroad through CAPA, is flying in to visit me. How amazing it is to remember that I set off on my journey unfamiliar with Chinese culture, unaware of my passions, not knowing a soul. How amazing it is to see how wildly my world has grown.
My final Chinese takeaway: my boyfriend Jacob.
Meet Jennifer Conner, an Arizona State University student studying Materials Science and Engineering. She studied abroad in Shanghai during Spring 2018 and is a CAPA Ambassador during the Spring 2019 semester.