Student Reflections: Semester in Review

Student Reflections: Semester in Review

Final papers are in, Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and Hopkins-Nanjing Center students are embarking on a much needed holiday between semesters. First-year MAIS student Nathan Rose reflects on his semester. 

With the Fall 2021 semester coming to an end (and the year of the Tiger fast approaching), I reflected a bit on the past couple months. This semester had its challenges, but upon reflection I was surprised how much I gained.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: virtual learning is tough. There is no denying this. Students, teachers, administrators are all frustrated with it, but it is an unfortunate reality we all must face in our COVID world. As such, let me describe some of the realities I experienced this semester. Having class early in the morning and late in the evening is difficult—something made worse if you are located in an unideal time zone (HNC virtual classes are scheduled as a compromise between EST and Beijing time, with classes occurring between 7-10 in both time-zones). I live in Mountain Standard Time (in the American West), with a -2h time difference relative to EST, meaning both my morning (evening relative to China) and evening classes (morning relative to China) occurred earlier. Overall, HNCs virtual schedule this semester worked decently well for me. My earliest class was at 7am (8am during daylight savings time), which is not an unreasonable time to get up (an additional advantage of virtual, one only needs a few minutes to get ready for class). My latest class ended at about 7:40pm (8:30 pm during daylight savings time), which, I felt, was similarly not unreasonable. I should note that I did actively take scheduling into account when choosing classes this semester, and would encourage future students to do the same. There are many classes that I would have loved to take, but knew that due to the time I wouldn’t be able to (I’m looking at you, “Research on Traditional Chinese Arts”; I would have loved to take you, but I knew that getting up at 5am would have resulted in a very rapid burnout). 

Another difficult aspect of virtual classes is community building. It can feel isolating to attend class and never meet your peers in person (I live in a somewhat isolated area, so there are very few classmates around). It can be easy for social interaction to be limited considering class time—one can unconsciously cocoon themselves. This trend is made more pressing due to the time difference; it’s hard to reach out to students and professors when their day-and-night cycles are exactly opposite.

While this all can be true, these trends don’t fully describe my virtual experience. Yes, I see my classmates mostly in class. But that doesn’t mean interaction is limited to just faces on a screen. First, class time is a shared time that can be used to make connections. Interacting with classmates via class discussions can be a great way to get to know them. Second, social interactions don’t end when class does. Most classes will have a student WeChat group associated with them (if not, I’d suggest making such a group). Usually after class, one finds a flurry of texting activity in the groups, as everyone discusses what happened in class. Sometimes, students will arrange an after-class zoom room to chat about class (or just chat more generally). Some of my fondest memories this semester came from such ad-hoc zoom chats. In my opinion, this shows that virtual community building is certainly possible. But one can’t be passive: making friends virtually might require a bit more active focus than in real life, but can be just as rewarding.

Another aspect of growth that really surprised me this semester was linguistic growth. If I am going to be critically honest with myself, I didn’t create as immersive of a Mandarin environment as I perhaps should have. I live at home with family. None of my family speaks Chinese. None of my neighbors speak Chinese. While a Chinese/Chinese-American community certainly exists where I live, it isn't particularly prominent. Even so, I probably should have tried harder to reach out and “break into” those groups. This all is to say: I was a bit passive in building an immersive language environment. Nonetheless, I did find my Chinese improved significantly over the semester. At the beginning of the semester, it took me hours to complete my Chinese readings. While I think it would be an exaggeration to say that my reading comprehension is perfect, it is significantly stronger and faster than when I first started this semester. The same can be said about my listening, speaking, and writing. While virtual can’t provide the immersive experience I was originally (and still am) looking for, it is still helping me accomplish my language goals, which is one of the reasons why I chose the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

I’d also like to highlight the fact that the learning curve is absolutely real. For me, I would say it peaked around mid-terms. A lot of my stress at that time came from my language ability; I felt I couldn’t fully understand my Chinese readings, and felt like I couldn’t effectively express my thoughts in Chinese. I was frustrated with the ambiguity of never being 100% sure that what I was reading was correct, or that what I was saying was correct. I have to give my profound thanks to our language teacher,  Hou 老师 for helping me get over this fear. He pointed out (very rightly) that ambiguity never truly goes away: real-life communication is based on implicit understandings, rather than explicit understandings we might get from a textbook or dictionary. While this insight didn’t magically make my midterm assignments disappear, it did give me the courage to tackle them and my other schoolwork.

A second-year classmate told me that the HNC experience is what you put into it. I feel this is especially true with virtual class. Making friends virtually takes more effort than in person, but if one puts in the effort they will find a rewarding community. The same can be said about learning: while one could coast by, one gains much more by committing more time and effort. 

For the spring semester I plan on taking my Hopkins-Nanjing Center courses virtually from Taiwan, and look forward to the new experiences next semester will bring!