McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
Majors: Industrial Engineering, Mandarin Chinese
Major: Environmental Engineering
Living with a host family was the best choice I made in my entire study abroad experience. Speaking with my family around the dinner table each night was truly critical for my personal growth in the language and culture. While the commute was much longer than that of other students, I would not have traded my housing placement for anything. They went beyond their duties as a host family and treated me as if I was their own child. As a result, our relationship was very deep. Even after the semester ended and I moved across the city, my host family continued to welcome me home for family dinner each weekend, and when they gave birth to their first child, they even asked me to help choose an English name.
It was a challenge to fit almost a year abroad into my engineering program; however, it greatly contributes to my long-term goal of becoming fluent in Chinese. China is an incredible economic power, and I believe we need to understand its language and culture in order to succeed in the increasingly global economy. As our countries, cultures, and economies grow to be even more interconnected, there will be a growing need for improved communication and cooperation between our two countries, and combination of cultural understanding, language ability, and engineering skills will fill that void.
With at least four hours of class time each day, the language courses are intense, but they are also well designed. The course materials, specifically created for IES, cover real life topics that are often not covered by traditional textbooks. The teachers strongly encourage participation, and there are daily classes that are dedicated to speaking practice. The time required for learning vocabulary and grammar outside the classroom cannot be underestimated as the amount of material covered in class each day is the equivalent of one week at Northwestern.
During the semester, I focused exclusively on learning Chinese, but after final exams, I was fortunate to be selected as one of just two interns at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in China. It was an incredible experience to represent the Department of Energy at meetings with the heads of Chinese government agencies, state owned enterprises, and multinational companies. Aside from the frequent meetings, I wrote memos for the Ambassador, and I even had the chance to write a few speeches for the Executive Director of DOE China.
On some weekends, I did the typical study abroad activities like exploring the city and snapping pictures of the cultural sites, but most nights I would perform with Chinese musicians in a popular Beijing bar, singing songs in both English and Chinese to entertain customers. Every night the bar was packed with people from all around the country, and during my breaks, I had the opportunity to chat with Chinese people who spoke with a wide range of regional accents. I even happened to meet a number of movie producers and musicians from the underground rock scene.
The Chinese people were very open and welcoming even during the first few weeks when I still struggled to construct the most basic sentences. The Chinese people love to talk to Americans and are fascinated by American culture, especially basketball and Justin Bieber! So everywhere I went, it was easy to strike up a conversation with complete strangers once they realized I could speak Chinese.
I attended the study abroad office’s pre-departure seminar, and it gave me a good idea of how to prepare and what to expect as I adjusted to the new environment. However, it is impossible to be fully prepared to live in a completely foreign culture so you have to keep an open mind as you start out.
Having previously spent time abroad to learn Spanish, I knew that for me to succeed in learning Chinese, I needed to put myself out there and talk with everybody. However, after the first two months of taking every opportunity to speak the language, I plateaued. In order to continue improving, I had to change my study plan and refocus my efforts on studying vocabulary and grammar.
Gaining the ability to speak is essential for foreign language acquisition, but in the U.S. the opportunities to speak are so few that it is near impossible to develop this skill. While abroad, you should really take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the language and culture, and don’t be misled into thinking that just living abroad will improve your language skills. In order to keep improving you need to break out of the comfortable habit of ordering dinner in your target language and spending the rest of your time speaking in English with foreigners. You need to repeatedly seek out conversations with locals and strive to discuss new and unfamiliar topics.
My first exposure to Chinese music was the Beijing Opera, which was presented many times during Chinese class. The high-pitched voices were not so appealing. After I arrived in Beijing, I realized that the Beijing Opera represented a classical style of music that you seldom hear any more. Friends and fellow musicians introduced me the modern music scene, which includes many of the same styles of music that we listen to here in the U.S. After a few months, I even started to appreciate the Beijing Opera which is incorporated into some modern rock songs.
Living in a dorm made meeting Australians very easy. The dining hall was a central hangout spot and I would spend hours there talking with my new friends. I left the door to my room open and people would stop in to say hello. Someone heard the song Roundabout by Yes playing from my room and came rushing in to introduce themselves and tell me how much they love the band. I lived in a single as did everyone else in my dorm. In fact, the entire idea of a roommate is foreign in all Australian universities. I lived on campus and very close to my classes, and right next to the cricket oval where we played Ultimate Frisbee (yes, it's popular in Australia too).
I only had to take one engineering class abroad if I took four in the fall of my senior year. I needed to take Thermodynamics and was free to choose three completely unrelated electives. Australian Popular Culture was very interesting and helped me understand some of the key movies, athletes, and bands in Australia today. I've always been into music so Intro to Music Technology was great, allowing me to toy around with several different professional music production softwares. My humanities theme is philosophy so I took Epistemology and Metaphysics, a class that let me write papers on the unfeasibility of time travel and explain why we'll never know if what we know is true knowledge.
Thermodynamics was taught in the same exact way I would have expected it to be taught at Northwestern, both in teaching style and curriculum. I realized how standardized engineering instruction actually is. My three electives were also similar to Northwestern classes, having readings, papers, and discussion section every week.
My new Australian friend was directing a series of one-act plays and I auditioned on a whim. I'll never know if I was picked for talent or because my role was an American and I was the only one who could get the accent right, but it was so much fun and different from anything I've done at Northwestern. I traveled a lot with other study abroad students, as most Australians have already seen the major tourist attractions. The youth hostel network in Australia and New Zealand provide an inexpensive way to see the country and meet other travelers from all around the world. I got certified to scuba dive right at Northwestern and dove 10 times on the Great Barrier Reef. I encountered three types of sharks, giant clams, an octopus, and lots of turtles on the reef. I was also part of the University of Queensland dive club and dove on the weekends around the Brisbane area. One of my favorite places to visit was Hobart, Tasmania. The best memory I have from there is of sitting in a smokey blues club on Halloween listening to a live local band and feeling so in love with the city. Brisbane is a 40 minute train ride to the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, which have Australia's best beaches. The bus system in Brisbane is great and makes it super easy to get to the city from campus (~20 min). After the semester ended, I spent a month WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) in Karamea, New Zealand.
Meeting so many new people in my dorm made me feel like a freshman again. Australians are known for being friendly and I found this to be very true. I also made lots of friends in my classes and organized study groups before tests.
I felt very safe on UQ's campus, though you never want to take risks so always travel with a buddy at night. I got a terrible sinus infection the week before a big diving trip, so I went to the campus pharmacy. The process was very easy and the medicines were covered by my insurance. I was better in time for the dive trip!
I covered most of the trip by taking a job at the library and lifeguarding at the Evanston Athletic Club. For the rest, I "Got By With a Little Help From My Parents." Most of my money was spent traveling on the weekends. I signed up for the newsletters of several airlines and kept my eyes open for deals. I stayed in youth hostels, which are very inexpensive. Alcohol is extraordinarily expensive in Australia so limit your consumption.
Don't be shy, introduce yourself to everyone! Australians are fascinated by American culture. Your time abroad is limited so make sure you are always doing something! Make a bucket list of things you want to see! If I had a few hours to kill in between class I would go on a run to see a different part of the city, go to the University Art Museum, or chat with one of my Australian friends. Down time is your enemy! The end of the semester came very quickly and I know lots of people that realized they had only competed 2 or 3 items on their bucket list.
I only had difficulty in the first 5 minutes I was back. I was walking to class on Sheridan and I felt very upset, so I stopped and sat on a bench. I had such a great time in Australia and met so many friends, so I was very upset I was back. This feeling went away as soon as I saw my classmates and later that night, my friends. They welcomed me back and I felt really happy to see them and to be back on campus. One of my best friends from Australia actually came to visit me on campus 2 months after I got back!