Far and away, studying in Beijing for 6 months during my junior year at Pomona navigated my life towards what it is today. I spent this time (summer and fall) enrolled at the Associated Colleges in China (ACC) in one of the most challenging learning experiences of my life:
I signed a language pledge: I only spoke Chinese for 6 months... including any foreigner I came into contact with.
I memorized 80-100 Chinese characters per day: Every single morning we were tested on these characters in dictations.
I engaged in strict 1-on-1 language training: Every day an army of talented, enthusiastic, and disciplined young teachers would correct my pronunciation and grammar without letting me finish a thought until it was correct.
Coming from Pomona's classroom environment that emphasized critical thinking, safe spaces, and indirect coaching, this new way of learning was very challenging. I remember after the first day at ACC I was sweating buckets. I had never really learned in this way before and I couldn't really even commiserate with my classmates as we all bumbled along in awkward Chinese with each other. But, I had been forewarned by a previous Pomona student that it would be tough, so I gritted my teeth and began to study like I had never studied before: 6 am rise to review vocabulary, a daily test, 4 hours of grilling from our teachers, lunch, workout, and then 5 hours of homework and study.
Yet, as I pushed through the first month, things began to get easier. I was no longer leaving the classroom with a body covered in anxiety-sweat. In fact, I was improving my Chinese faster than I had ever improved before. And oddly enough, I felt much more confident making mistakes as the teachers' direct corrections became a regular occurrence. This confidence actually made me and my classmates find ourselves in all kinds of hilarious situations (see the mockumentary my roommate and I made! https://vimeo.com/24528592). And perhaps most importantly, learning a new language rewired my brain to think in a new way: I became more outgoing and verbose when speaking Chinese; I became better at listening to the body language and cultural queues of both Chinese and foreigners, and I became aware of the weaknesses and assumptions of my value and meaning system. Here are some good examples:
The language pledge allowed me to befriend my conservative roommate. Having never spoken to my roommate in English for 6 months, we became extremely good friends as we both bumbled through Chinese to talk to each other. When we finally switched to English, I picked up on queues that would have normally turned me off to him but speaking in Chinese had made me more opened minded.
The 80-100 characters per night taught me to learn how to learn. This sounds a bit meta, but I became aware that I was learning on a learning style cultivated from a Pomona and years of American schooling. While this wasn't a bad thing, it had blinded me to the idea that sometimes repetition, rote memorizing, and being directly corrected has a lot of benefits. I rarely meet anyone who has attained a high level of fluent linguistic confidence in Chinese who has not attended ACC or a program with a similar pedagogical approach.
The 1-on-1 lessons made me fearless. As the semester progressed, the teachers got to know me better and while they still corrected me every other word, they also guided me in articulating my interests and goals. One of my goals had been to make a documentary about street basketball in Beijing, and the teachers took this goal and helped me build the confidence (and vocabulary) to meet and really build relationships with basketball players in Beijing. I had been inspired to make this documentary by the Dru Gladney at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona and a sports sociology class at Pitzer. They had supplied me with the theoretical question, but ACC equipped me with the means to execute my plan in a meaningful way. The final documentary is still one of my most proud accomplishments and ended up leading to my thesis, a Fulbright Scholar grant, and a job researching Chinese youth culture. https://vimeo.com/1799084
Ultimately, studying abroad at ACC shaped the future I would take. It not only equipped me with the linguistic tools to truly immerse myself the society (I ended up doing research in China, getting a job in China, starting a business in China, and finding a life partner in China!) but it forced me to challenge my own ontology. "Ontology" is one of those words you end up learning while at Pomona, but understanding the concept and actually achieving awareness of the concept are two different things. Studying abroad allowed me to gain a deep level of awareness that changed my life.
Today, I'm back in the States for a spat. I've decided to pursue two Masters degrees in Urban Planning and Business at MIT. And the lessons learned at ACC continue to guide me to learn how to learn in this program. I fully intend on returning to China after I graduate. I look forward to hearing from any students, professors, or alumni!