Academic Explorers Martial Arts and Mandarin in Beijing, China

Academic Explorers


Academic Explorers offers a unique study abroad and martial arts learning program for those looking to make the most out of their experience in China! Learn Mandarin and ancient Chinese traditions during this challenging gap year program in Beijing. If you're looking for a fun and stimulating experience, then come and learn with Academic Explorers.



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Yes, I recommend this program

7 years after my adventure with Academic Explorers, I still look back longingly on the experience I had during this program!

One of the things I really love about AE is how much Sabrina pushes her students to experience the ‘unfiltered’ Beijing. In college, I spoke to many of my peers that studied abroad in Beijing and spent most of their time in the areas surrounding the major universities. Many of them were not challenged to speak Mandarin or live outside of their comfort zones. By contrast, Sabrina encourages her students to take advantage of the opportunity to interact with a world completely unlike that which they come from – whether it be taking the subway far beyond the Second Ring Road to the less touristic areas, or calling back an intimidating Chinese girl who gave me her number in a restaurant. In my experience, these were the adventures where I felt like I really saw China – massive electronics malls filled with hundreds of thousands of haggling locals, or impromptu ping-pong tournaments in tucked away city parks. Indeed, sometimes Sabrina is not nice in her insistence that you resist your Western habits (I can’t count the number of times she scolded me for walking around with my headphones on). In retrospect, however, I am extremely glad that she was resilient in encouraging me to take full advantage of the newness of my experience.

I was lucky enough to study Mandarin before I arrived in Beijing, and Sabrina rewarded me with some pretty spectacular one-on-one lessons. Sabrina’s Chinese classes were not typical to say the least! Some of my fondest memories include going to a bustling (and relatively unhygienic) meat and vegetable market to learn the names of major food items, or another time reclining in a couple of massage chairs in a posh furniture store while going over my homework (needless to say, we didn’t get much done that day!). Not uncommonly, Sabrina would throw me into challenging experiences and make me talk my way out of them. This immersive method was a fantastic way to learn how to use my Mandarin skills, and indeed I am still complimented for my conversational skills to this day.

It might be evident to this point that I haven’t mentioned the martial arts component of the program (which comprised 4 hours of every day, six days a week). I would say that as opposed to many of the other students I know that went on this program, I was less interested in the gongfu element. And still I was able to have a tremendous experience. For me, martial arts was the vehicle by which I accessed the people, places and ideas that left the strongest impressions on me – the amazing parks, the strange banquets, the mind-blowing concepts of energy that are central to Chinese thought. Furthermore, the intensity of our training encouraged me to bring a similar passion to all aspects of my life in Beijing, where I might have otherwise slacked off. It is this aspect of Academic Explorers – the intensity and challenge of the experience – that most contrasts with my other gap year program, and I feel really prepared for me for college.

7 years after my adventure with Academic Explorers, and I am finally planning on returning to Beijing! Despite many of the things that ostensibly make Beijing a not-so-attractive destination for a young person travelling abroad – the pollution, the chaos, the gentrification – I am choosing to return there because of the experience I had with AE. As opposed to evaluating Beijing relative to other cities in terms of its superficial qualities, I feel personally connected to the local characteristics of this city, and I am drawn to it as a sort of home-away-from-home. I feel very lucky to know a foreign city in this way, and I thank Sabrina and Academic Explorers for this.

What would you improve about this program?
It would have been wonderful to have a little more choice in how to proceed with my studies after a certain point in the semester (i.e. which advanced style of martial arts to pursue).
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Yes, I recommend this program

It's impossible to capture how amazing this program is in 200 characters, but I'll try. I went abroad to China with ZERO experience in either Kung Fu or Mandarin. Sabrina Cohen's program is what I point to when people think it's "too late" to learn a language or new skill. I left feeling confidently conversational in Mandarin after 3 months, and still practice my kung fu forms today.

The experience is completely immersive, which is what makes the biggest difference. That, and the amount of time you spend with other members of the program means that you make meaningful connections during your time there. You are truly free to live in Beijing and explore the city around you in your spare time. That, and different trips and specialized classes about different topics (Tibet, alternative medicine, Taoism) make the experience one that I will never forget.

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Yes, I recommend this program

Its easy to say an experience is "life changing" or had a great impact about just about anything. I'm sure many of you reading this, if you've had to write college essays about "life changing" experiences, then you know exactly what I mean: you take some semi-interesting event and make up a bunch of stuff about the lessons you learned from it. I know I did that for my college essays. But after Academic Explorers I didn't have to spin lies when asked questions like that. For me, my time in China was a truly life changing experience, and I hope by the end of this review you will believe my sincerity.

The basics: Academic Explorers is a 3 month program in Beijing China. You'll study both the Chinese language and several forms of martial arts. On my trip I studied Shaolin and Ba Gua, and we also got to learn some techniques with a spear which was really cool.

You may already have heard this program described as intense. Make no mistake, it really is. When I arrived, I could barely run a mile without wanting to throw up. By the end of the program each day consisted of a 5 mile warm up jog, 4 hours of kung fu practice, and then another 5 mile jog. And I was loving it. Seeing my transformation was incredible. It was not just the physical effects, I also learned enough Chinese to have a substantial conversation on the flight home with the man sitting next to me, all in Chinese. It was very cool.

Beyond just the tangible fitness and language skills I gained, I became a much more self-sufficient and confident person. Sabrina (the person running the program) gives you lots of autonomy, but lots of responsibility comes with it. On the very first day, after an 11 hour flight, she had us figure out what bus to take to get to our hotel from the airport. At first, I was frustrated with this style of program management. I was one of the many who was never really challenged in high school, and having to figure things out in a strange land really pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to grow as a person. Being challenged both in class, with the material we were learning, and out of class, in ensuring we arrive to class on time, with all our homework completed, forced me to develop not just planning skills, but also self-reliance. Even with an extremely full day of homework, kung fu practice and chinese class I could still get everything done and have some personal time.

The physical challenged as well was extremely rewarding. During the second week, when I felt like my legs were going to fall off, and I still had another lap around the park to run, and I know tomorrow I have to do the same thing, and the day after that, and on and on seemingly forever, I wanted to give up. But I kept going, I made it, and you will too. And you'll learn what your truly capable of doing, if you push yourself and fight through the struggle at the beginning. And that knowledge, that self-confidence, is worth far more than any class, any school credits, or any internship experience in my mind. Having seen just how much I was capable of if I set my mind to it and put the time in was an extremely valuable and life changing experience. I cannot recommend Academic Explorers highly enough.

What would you improve about this program?
The hotel we stayed at wasn't perfect. It was a pretty tiny room, with three of us packed in. That said, we really were only in the room to sleep, and at the end of the day on this program you will be more than ready to pass out.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Traditional kung fu movies invariably feature a training montage—a few minutes when the dénouement pauses to unveil the hardships that the protagonist must undergo in order to develop the fortified mind and body he or she needs to ultimately prevail. Though these moments generally contribute little to the plot, they are always my favorite, and I know others share my opinion. I recently watched The New Shaolin Temple, starring Andy Lau, with my mom, and she was most vocal during scenes that exhibited the monks’ training regiments. “Oh my god!” she would yell, “they are amazing—we need to go to China and do this!” But it’s not just the snapshots of the almost supernatural feats of strength; these patchworks of training clips are most compelling for their evocation of character. Altogether, the rigorous exertion proves transformative: the protagonist evinces dedication, discipline, resilience, willpower, drive, and confidence either before he commits to training or after all the hard work. It is then that he or she can progress from dispatching nameless henchman to confronting a notorious antagonist—the intense training clearly distinguishes the ordinary individual from the exceptional. In doing so, the journey inspires us with glimpses of greatness, but the path by which we arrive at such strength always seems to remain as unattainable as a dream.

Fantasize no longer. Academic Explorers seizes this dream and turns it into a reality; or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Sabrina Cohen’s Beijing-based martial arts program infuses reality with a dream-like quality. I landed in Beijing without ever having studied Mandarin Chinese or kung fu. The little I did know about Kung Fu had always made me reluctant to seek instruction in the United States—I wanted to learn authentic Chinese kung fu, not an Americanized derivative. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand and appreciate the direction that most American Kung Fu schools have moved towards. They have their virtues; but I wanted something different, and that’s exactly what I got. I showed up for lessons on the first day and stared in awe when I entered the training grounds—it was a beautiful traditional Chinese courtyard, and I could swear that Jet Li had thwarted countless nemeses on the same stone pavement that I myself was about to tread. I met my Chinese instructors and quickly realized that they did not speak English beyond a few key phrases: “Begin,” “Again,” and “Faster!” I learned, however, that their English limitations were a blessing rather than a hindrance. Kung fu is about body-awareness, feeling—sure, you can understand the principles of a punch or a kick, but until you can synchronize your muscles and perform the motion with your body, you have not mastered the move. Kung fu is intricate, and words can often get in the way. When I screwed up a move, my teachers would chuckle a bit to add some levity and demonstrate it again. If I still couldn’t figure it out, they would clasp my arms or legs and physically take me through the motion. Furthermore, the language barriers forced me to take on Mandarin. The first Chinese word—and most important lesson—I learned with Academic Explorers, was gong fu.

Like the martial arts, I learned the meaning of gong fu with my body before I unwrapped the phrase within a familiar lexicon. I woke at around 5:00am every morning and rushed to an early session of kung fu. After two hours of practice, I ate lunch and made my way to a Chinese lesson. I headed to another three hours of kung fu practice immediately afterwards. Post dinner, I spent at least two more hours working on Chinese homework before crashing into bed. With such a rigorous schedule, I learned a serious amount of kung fu and Mandarin. I thereby arrive at my definition: gong fu means skill, acquired skill even. And its significance extends far beyond the narrow parameters to which most English speakers have confined it: the term applies to any aptitude acquired through diligence and persistence, not just martial arts. You can have cooking gong fu, hockey gong fu, or language gong fu, for instance. For those three months, I developed both my martial arts and Mandarin gong fu. I practiced both frenetic, aerobic Shaolin kung fu and the more rhythmic, fluid Tai Ji. All the while I engaged in linguistic acrobatics, struggling endlessly, but not futilely, to produce passable Mandarin phrases. Most importantly, however, I ingrained the principle of gong fu, the gong fu of gong fu even, into my life. What’s most appealing, most inspiring about the heroes from kung fu movies is that they are ordinary individuals turned drastically extraordinary via their own concerted efforts. That is the way of gong fu—unceasing, applied aspiration that overcomes all barriers in its pursuit of knowledge and excellence. And that drive, that confidence, is precisely what Sabrina’s program teaches its students.

I’ve incorporated a gong fu mentality into my everyday life. While in college, I continued to study Mandarin and kung fu, taking every available opportunity to return to China. Since my initial visit with Academic Explorers, I have been back to Beijing five times. I met with the kung fu teachers Sabrina introduced me to on each subsequent occasion. I formed bonds with the teachers and other students during my first visit that have been renewed and deepened into a community. Now I consider Beijing a second home rather than an unfamiliar city teeming with inscrutable inhabitants. Lao Tzu has an oft-quoted saying in the Tao Te Ching: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For me, that single step was a semester in Beijing with Academic Explorers. Five years later, my opportunities have expanded to include life in China, and even U.S. employers are happy to note that I am highly proficient in Mandarin Chinese. The Academic Explorers’ experience was challenging and exhausting, but rightfully so. Embark upon your own training montage—the journey is only a dream for as long as you allow it to be. And the rewards far outweigh the rigors.

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Yes, I recommend this program

If you are thinking about this program then you need to ask yourself do you REALLY want to learn Chinese language? Do you REALLY want to learn Martial arts? Do you want to learn about yourself? If your answer to any of the above questions ranged from no to maybe I would seriously reconsider Academic Explorers. Otherwise, you may have found the single best program in the world for your interests.

During my six months on the program I was constantly tired and hungry, frustrated and anxious. Both the Chinese teachers and the Martial Arts teachers push you to your limit physically and mentally. From morning to bedtime I knew exactly what my schedule looked like and it was grueling. That being said, during my time there I went from absolutely zero background in martial arts or Chinese to (and I do not use this world lightly) having mastered a sword form complete with aerial kicks, stunts and a mid-air split and my Chinese went from non-existent to comfortably survival/moderately conversational.

This is not your after-high-school-time-to-relax-gap-year-program. This is a mind-opening and potential releasing experience. This is not something you do for fun, this is something you do to dramatically improve who you are as a person.

On the Chinese instruction, IT IS PHENOMENAL! Enough said.

On the Martial Arts, think less martial more arts. The physical discomfort of learning a martial art will dwarf any amount of pain that someone else can inflict on you. Good martial arts isn't about dominating you opponent, it is about learning to dominate yourself and by doing so no enemy will ever be able to defeat you. If there is one thing that I will take with me from my time there it is not my physical fitness (which has probably all but faded by this point) but rather the knowledge that the only thing standing in my way is myself. The opportunities are all their it is just our own biases and flaws that keep us from seizing them.

Academic Explorers fundamentally changed how I see the world in the best way possible.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Why did you decide to study abroad with Academic Explorers in Beijing?

I chose to study with academic explorers because I wasn’t ready to graduate college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I opted to take a gap year and explore my interests in China and improve my Chinese language skills. I was also recommended Academic Explorers through Holly Bull and the Center for Interim Programs. Without her guidance, I would not have discovered AE.

What made studying abroad a unique and special experience?

What made this experience unique and special is that I was simultaneously independent and a part of a structured program. The program was very challenging mentally and physically and forced me to breach comfort zones that had been well established.

This opened my perspective and significantly changed my outlook. It also made me feel accomplished, as I achieved something very few others can – like boot camp except more enjoyable (it’s hard to describe). My review of the program goes into more detail.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Personally, the program helped me craft my life philosophy. I approach things with a certain objective and attitude every day; this is the most important gift I received through participating in this program.

AE also has had a huge impact on my future and career path as I am now in China, and primarily due to the fact that AE helped elevate my Chinese to a level that allows me to live and work in China. The program did not necessarily connect me with my employer or network me with anyone directly, but the language skills and lifestyle education can put you in a position to find a life in China after AE.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been the most studious person and I don’t think that would change no matter what anyone can do or say. But I do believe there are good teachers and bad teachers and it would be impossible not to take away an incredible education and experience from AE.