The school was hidden in the mountains of southern China. I stood there in front of 700 seniors from Qingyuan High School, trying to conjure up the inner John Gaddis in me as I lectured. I used the Chinese I had practiced over the summer to describe my life from high school dances to classes at Yale.
I’ve been living in Asia since May 2013. While here, I have gone on a summer tour with my a cappella group, the Spizzwinks(?), participated in the Light Fellowship at the Harvard Beijing Academy, lead a Yale Building Bridges teaching excursion to the Zhejiang Province and visited Yale-NUS in Singapore. I’m spending the last leg of my Fellowship back in Beijing with Associated Colleges in China’s fall semester Chinese language program.
Since my freshman year of high school, I had dreamed of living in Asia in the hopes of better understanding the Far East. Now I’m getting to do so, fully funded through Yale’s Light Fellowship. Living abroad is an experience every Yalie should seriously consider and, with the abundant sources of funding available, something we should start searching for early on in our college careers.
Making the final decision to apply for a summer and semester leave of absence was not easy because of how deeply my first year at Yale had impacted me. I had found passionate, caring and like-minded friends, taken classes with world-renowned professors, listened to famous speakers, played cello in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, given tours to prospective students and lived in dorms that rivaled those at Hogwarts. I struggled to think about putting any of this on hold, even for a semester.
I started to change my mind when I had a discussion with my admissions officer who had studied abroad in China for a semester during his time at Yale. He told me a fully funded experience was something I shouldn’t miss out on. Though I had hesitated to make a decision that would prevent me from receiving my diploma with the class of 2016, my admissions officer and the upperclassman I spoke with assured me that would become less of a mental obstacle the older I get.
Our motto in the Spizzwinks(?) is ”Never Don’t Go.” Though it is grammatically suspect, it is a mantra that we hold dear during our three years singing together. The phrase instructs us to live for the moment and experience life to the fullest. With this little phrase in my head, I took the plunge and applied.
I encourage everyone back at Yale, especially those who have just arrived, to do something unprecedented with your college career. Any experience abroad will deeply influence your perspective on the world in ways studying within the confines of Yale’s campus cannot.
Yale gives us the resources and funding to enrich our perspectives through worldwide experiential education. Look into the Center for International and Professional Experience’s Fellowship database and inquire upperclassmen about their experiences abroad as early as possible. Deciding what path you want to take can require a long period of personal reflection. And while reflecting, it’s important to remember not to measure our personal successes against those of our peers. Everyone must find their own routes to fulfillment while in college.
After we graduate from Yale, it will be difficult to find opportunities to travel abroad for the sole purpose of enriching our studies without having to worry about where we’ll get the money to pay rent or buy coffee. Many Yale students decide to spend just one summer abroad, thinking that will suffice. But I’m so glad I decided to stay here for an entire semester — there’s just too much to experience in China to stay here for only a period of two months.
I’ll never forget what it was like to stand up behind that podium in Qingyuan High School in front of hundreds of students and share with them a bit of my life. I’ll never forget how they screamed my name, snapped my picture and asked for my autograph. I’ll never forget driving around to their houses and speaking with them and their families in Chinese. I’ll always hold on to the presents they gave me along with the cards and the emails they continue to write to me telling me how I inspired them. And I’ll never forget the mantra I followed this semester, and one I’ll pass on to all of my peers at Yale: never don’t go.
Phil Wilkinson is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College currently studying in Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.