Studying abroad in China for the 2015-16 academic year with IES Abroad was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable, challenging and transformative experiences of my life so far, and I look back on my experiences in Beijing as the highlight of my college career. China is a great choice of study abroad destination because it is a unique and complex country with a rich cultural and historical heritage, not to mention its status as a rising world power or economic powerhouse, which ensures its relevance to any major or profession you pursue. Living and learning in Beijing for two full semesters allowed me to experience Chinese culture firsthand and observe China’s mix of modernism and traditionalism to gain a better understanding of the nation in a way I simply couldn’t do from classes back at my home university in the US. Not to mention, my Chinese skills improved by leaps and bounds along the way! Overall, the IES Abroad Contemporary China & Chinese Language program provides a very good study abroad experience and I would definitely recommend participating in the program.
The most notable academic aspect of the program is the emphasis on Chinese language learning and, of course, the Chinese language pledge. The program requires 8 classroom hours of Chinese language instruction per week (2 hours M-T and Th-F with Wednesdays off), but students at the 300-level or above can elect to take additional 2-credit language elective courses. From personal experience I would recommend the Modern Slang class for learning fun sayings and words relating to Chinese pop culture and society- your Chinese roommates and host family will be surprised to hear you speaking like a local and love helping to explain the terms’ origins to foreign students. The quality of instruction in the Chinese language classes is very good with an average of 4-8 students per class, and IES offers many levels of Chinese from beginning through fourth year/fifth year. This flexibility with the language placement helps find a fit for each student. The language pledge requires speaking only Chinese in classes, with everyone else on the program, and in all areas of campus. While it sounds intimidating, it really is the best thing to help improve your Chinese if you challenge yourself to stick to the pledge as much as possible. At the end of the program, you will find that speaking Chinese gradually comes to you more naturally, and you will be better able to hold conversations, explain your meaning, and navigate more complicated situations in entirely Chinese. The language pledge isn’t particularly strict at the start because it’s gradually increased in intensity at various points throughout the semester (ex. First only 8am-4pm, then 24/7), and students do tend to slip into English when they leave campus for ease of understanding, so it’s not overwhelmingly strict in the long run. While the English-language area studies electives were interesting but not very challenging compared to US university courses, the demands of your entire academic courseload with your Chinese language classes are quite intensive and require significant time commitment, especially with the daily听写quizzes. That being said, if you are good at time management and are prepared to work hard then you will not have a problem progressing rapidly and achieving the grades you want while also finding time to go out and explore Beijing.
The program environment and amenities were overall really nice. The IES Beijing Center is based at Beijing Foreign Studies University in the northwest Haidian district, known as the “university” district of Beijing and therefore a great place to be a student! The campus is beautiful and conveniently located only a quick subway ride away from many interesting and culturally significant sites in the city. Living in China is generally inexpensive, plus there are plenty of cheap but delicious student eateries nearby and an on-campus cafeteria, so if you are thrifty your money can go far here to give you a good lifestyle for a fraction of the price of studying abroad in more expensive Western European nations. As for the program’s support network, the program staff are all very helpful and willing to lend an ear if you have any concerns, need someone to talk to about anything or just want to blow off some steam. It’s very easy to get to know your teachers, RAs and program administrators on a personal level since it’s quite a small program, and I’ve found that the bonds you will make with other students on the program will be especially strong, providing emotional support from people who are going through the same experiences with culture shock and can help you overcome the challenges you face on the program. Although there were sometimes some issues with miscommunications or poor coordination between staff and students on the program, IES was overall good about keeping students informed and running the program smoothly.
As for the degree to which you are able to get a feel for Chinese culture and engage with China through this program, I found that IES is very good about planning activities and events around Beijing to help you get acquainted with the city, including visits to local sites and the occasional group restaurant meal. The highlight of the semester for a lot of people was the weeklong extended excursion trip to a rural part of Yunnan, Guizhou or Ningxia provinces, where students were able to travel together to see different parts of China and experience some very unique activities such as a three-day village stay with local ethnic minority families. There were also two or three four-day independent travel weekends each semester. The living arrangements, whether homestays with a local Chinese family or dorm rooms with Chinese BFSU students, will both help you learn about Chinese culture firsthand through exposure and see how Chinese people live. I lived in a homestay my first semester and a dorm my second semester, and both were great experiences. Bonding with the Chinese roommates was also one of the highlights of my experience in IES because they are genuinely interested in bonding with you and learning about your culture too! That being said, the IES program is rather detached from the rest of BFSU as IES Beijing has its own classrooms and course in a separate building from many of the Chinese students’ classes, and the IES students live on a floor of the international students dormitory specifically reserved for IES, making it very easy to fall into the IES “bubble” unless you make efforts to get out and meet other around campus if you are interested in doing so.
As a whole, I feel that I have grown immensely from my time in Beijing with IES Abroad. Although studying abroad in a nation as different from my home community as China is not without its challenges, it is a very rewarding experience to learn about such a fascinating country and culture while meeting friends from around the country and across the world, and I will forever be grateful for the IES community I was lucky to be a part of during my time in China. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in China or studying Mandarin! I hope my review was helpful in giving you a better idea of what to expect on the program, and I hope you have a fun and fulfilling study abroad experience with IES Beijing like I did!