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A Global Semester View: Captivating China

This semester 20 St. Olaf students are traveling together across France, Egypt, Tanzania, India, China, and Argentina on Global Semester, one of the college’s renowned faculty-led study abroad programs. Thanks to a generous gift from alumni Larry and Lynn Stranghoener (both of the class of 1976), St. Olaf students are able to participate in Global Semester for the same cost as studying on campus. Students have been chronicling their experiences as they travel with Associate Professor of Education Elizabeth Leer and her family. Read the recent post by Noah Foster ’20 below, and follow all of the adventures on the Global Semester Blog

As we ascended the stone staircase of the Great Wall, the air was reminiscent of the fall season in Northfield. The feeling of experiencing such a feat of human achievement and prowess was truly humbling as we got to the top of the stairs. After reading and learning about the Great Wall in school and throughout my childhood, it was unbelievably surreal to actually be seeing it firsthand. With the sun shining on the mountains and the colorful fall leaves painting the landscape, the day truly could not have been more beautiful. To even fathom how such an architectural masterpiece was engineered is still leaving me in awe — one of the many questions that has captivated me since embarking on Global Semester.

Noah Foster ’20 on the Great Wall. Photo by Johnny Goodson.

On Wednesday, we had our education class, where we discussed the roles of educators in China and the United States in a comparative setting. Our discussion was followed by a group debrief of our time thus far in China. It was a much-needed time to step back and reflect a bit over halfway through the program, sharing our personal feelings, experiences, and challenges from the past several weeks with the rest of the group. Professor David Moser’s class has been tremendously engaging, learning about the extensive and often controversial history of China’s political economy. We learned about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the events leading-up to it, and the aftermath of the riot. The majority of people in China know at least something about Tiananmen Square, with many having lived through it in Beijing, as Professor Moser had. As you can imagine, it’s not often talked about in public, and the accuracy of knowledge regarding the incident is often a distorted reality. It is a particularly interesting time to be taking this class with Professor Moser, given the current protests in Hong Kong, a faint echo of the events that culminated in the perfect storm of 1989.

Later in the evening, we had the opportunity to attend a guest lecture with an education consultant named Xueqin Jiang. A graduate of Yale University and a member of a global education research committee at Harvard University, Professor Jiang looks to understand if Chinese schools and educational institutions can teach creativity in addition to literacy within the world’s most populous country. After introducing us to a brief overview of Chinese history, he then discussed the current structure of the education system at the city-district level and concluded by explaining the future of education in China with regard to artificial intelligence. We were able to ask additional questions, further supplementing what we had learned from Professor Moser earlier in the day.

Each day I wake up and feel unbelievably grateful to be on such a life-changing experience among some of the most remarkable people I have ever had the privilege of getting to know.Noah Foster ’20

On Thursday morning, we went outside of the city center to visit a school for migrant children whose parents have moved closer to Beijing in order to find work in the city. While the school is approved by the government, it doesn’t receive any funding at the national level. Given that the children are born of migrant parents, they aren’t allowed to attend regular public schools, highlighting the importance of institutions like these. We had the opportunity to visit a first grade Mandarin language class, as well as a math classroom. We were able to sit down with the headmaster and academic dean to ask specific questions pertaining to the student demographic, school curriculum, and educator qualifications. After taking our group photo, we got to watch the kids doing their morning exercises in-sync with music played over the loudspeaker on the sports court.

Following lunch, we went with our Chinese buddies to the 798 Arts District, which consists of galleries, storefronts, and restaurants that have fostered a prominent community of artists in greater Beijing. The brick walls were filled with designs and elaborate paintings: an explosion of creativity. Having dinner on our own, we ventured back to campus just in time to change into our Halloween costumes for Silas to trick-or-treat at each of our doors! All of the roommates had costumes together, with the winner being the one and only Isaac Leer, whose impression of his mom was met with roaring laughter and cheering. We had a Halloween party together, complete with candy and treats, sharing a special evening as a group.

The newness and excitement that comes with each day is something that I have come to appreciate and hope to incorporate into my life following the semester.Noah Foster ’20

On Friday, we had class with Professor Moser for the majority of the day, where we talked about social media, internet, television, and news censorship. We discussed in detail of how the centralized system is structured, and what it means for Chinese individuals on a daily basis. Following our class, we headed straight to the subway during rush hour. I think I can say with relative confidence that most of us have never been in a quieter space among so many people! A group of 16 students (myself included) wanted to visit Shanghai for our free weekend, and we took a sleeper train through the night to get there. However, upon arriving at the train station in Beijing, we were unsure of where we needed to go given the lack of signage and English-speaking officials. With one person having lost their train ticket and several individuals having misprinted tickets, it was certainly more challenging to catch our train than we had initially anticipated! A special thank you to our very own Meiyi Chen ’20 for helping us catch our train! We had just minutes to spare, but we all made it on and were soon asleep after a tiring week.

A special note to Johny Salinas ’21 — happy birthday! We hope you had a great day and missed celebrating with you! Upon arriving in Shanghai, we found out that the Airbnb we were planning to stay in cannot host foreigners, so thanks to Zibby and Meiyi’s remarkable problem solving we were able to find a relatively inexpensive hotel last minute and navigate our way there on the subway. After dropping off our bags, we decided to break into smaller groups for lunch, before convening for check-in at 2 p.m. Following a short rest, a group decided to visit Watertown, a small, traditional Chinese village with canals snaking throughout. Another group rested for a bit longer and walked to the famous Bund to see the skyline at night! It was so special to see, and really incredible to experience such an urban and metropolitan city.

Meiyi Chen ’20, Noah Foster ’20, and Laura Garcia Pimentel ’20 in front of the Shanghai skyline. Photo by Brennan Brink ’21.

After a relaxing and restful morning, we beelined to the nearest coffee shop and one of us had been craving soup dumplings, so we trekked across Shanghai in search of the dumplings for lunch! We then visited the gardens by the Shanghai Museum, and walked back to the hotel to give ourselves enough time to take the subway to the train station after our previous experience. In lieu of the sleeper train, we took the bullet train back to Beijing, tired from our busy weekend and seemingly never-ending adventures.

Watertown near Shanghai. Photo by Meiyi Chen ’20.

I would like to personally thank the Leer Family for making our time off-campus feel as much like home as possible. In the past few days, they were kind enough to host all of us for a pancake and egg breakfast cooked on a portable stove on their bathroom countertop before starting class, truly going above and beyond to help ensure the comforts of home from many thousands of miles away.

I continue to be amazed by the compassion, resiliency and authenticity among the other students in the group. Each day I wake up and feel unbelievably grateful to be on such a life-changing experience among some of the most remarkable people I have ever had the privilege of getting to know. I also would like to personally thank the St. Olaf International and Off-Campus Studies Office, particularly Jodi and Theresa for their continued support in helping to troubleshoot at all hours of the day and night.

If I could have one wish from my genie-in-a-bottle, I would wish for this experience to last forever. The newness and excitement that comes with each day is something that I have come to appreciate and hope to incorporate into my life following the semester. As a senior, I genuinely cannot imagine a more formative time to be pursuing a program of this nature, to learn and experience the world as a culmination of my St. Olaf experience. Thank you to all who have encouraged and supported me in this endeavor, for challenging me and allowing me the opportunity to experience all that the world has to offer.


— Noah Foster ’20