Caleb Kostreva is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A public policy and civic leadership; social science (global studies emphasis) major at Howard Payne University, he is studying abroad in Shanghai this term.
In this week's post, Caleb talks about what the academics are like at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
As I sit writing this post, finals are looming above me, so I feel that right now is an appropriate time to write about the education system. While there are definitely some similarities between my classes here in Shanghai and my classes at my home university, there are many aspects that are different. This semester, I am not only taking Mandarin courses, but I am also taking two sociology courses that focus on social issues in China and China’s urbanization.
In one of my first few blog posts, I wrote about discovering some impoverished areas in Shanghai. I did not know this at the time, but for one of my two sociology courses, we had to conduct a group research project, and we chose one of these slum-like areas. These two classes have been a perfect complement to my time here in Shanghai, because they have taught me about so many issues in China from within the classroom, and then I was able to walk out of class and observe them in action and ask my Chinese friends about their opinions on them.
Photo: Overlooking part of the slum area we researched
For example, I was able to see the lack of ability for social mobility among many groups within China, especially migrants from rural areas to urban centers because of China’s household registration system. I think that this contributes to the single most important reason to study abroad: experiential learning. It does not matter how much in-class learning a student has or how much one can memorize if he or she has no opportunity to observe that knowledge first-hand. Further, in-class learning can influence a person to have incorrect biases, but going out into the streets and watching it and coming to one’s own conclusions about things is much more difficult to influence.
Photo: China’s globalization is visible everywhere!
My Chinese class has mainly focused on speaking, though I think it is impossible to truly learn a language without learning to write it as well. When I first arrived, I had a basic understanding and knew just enough to get me in trouble, but my practical ability to communicate in Mandarin was severely limited. Over the last few months, my ability to speak Mandarin has exploded. I knew that immersion in the language would rapidly expand my vocabulary and fluency, but I never imagined it would be to this extent. I can have a surface conversation fairly easily, and I can even carry a moderate conversation without too much trouble. If you are wanting to learn a language, no learning app on your phone can help you learn it as quickly or fluidly as language immersion. Being required to make your own way around, and fail sometimes, is by far the most effective route to learning a language.
Photo: My Chinese class
My classes in the United States are fairly similar as far as format is concerned, but in many ways, they are very different. Probably the biggest difference is the fact that my classes here have forced me to learn as much from observation outside the classroom as within. My home university is in a small town in the middle of Texas, so it is difficult to witness the effects of globalization or urbanization first-hand, but in Shanghai, I have only to walk outside to see the environmental dangers, the skyscrapers, the connectivity of the metro and bus systems – China’s globalization is visible literally everywhere. There are some cultural differences in teaching style as well, though all my professors were very understanding and reached out to all of the international students. Another major difference is that the fall semester for China ends in late January or early February, so the fact that I leave in five days (eek!) means that my professors have to give some of their international students the final exams a month or more before the end of their semester.
Every international student I have met has had their own struggles assimilating themselves into the Chinese university life, but there is no better way to understand a culture, a country, or a language than to go there and become a student not only of East China Normal University, but of China. While cultural differences in the classroom were sometimes interesting to navigate, it allowed me to become more flexible and able to adjust to circumstances that might not necessarily be in my comfort zone. So, if you are reading this and are wondering if you should study abroad, DO IT. It will be really hard at times, but seeing the world is about so much more than seeing the sights; it is about learning other cultures and becoming a more well-rounded individual who can think of the world from a broader perspective.
Caleb's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned.