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Youth Blaze Trail All the Way to China

Viewed 691 times 2017-4-17 13:52 |System category:News| China

Harriet Kariuki [Provided by Harriet Kariuki]


"Coming to Yenching Academy was one of the best decisions I have made," says 22-year-old Harriet Kariuki, from Kenya. Last September, Kariuki joined the ranks of other outstanding young men and women from 42 countries and regions when she officially became a member of Yenching Academy (YCA), an elite international program at China's most prestigious university, Peking University.

As a young adult living in a small village in Kenya, Kariuki's life took an unexpected turn in 2012, when she obtained a full scholarship to Harvard. After she graduated from Harvard, Kariuki jumped at the opportunity offered by YCA and she joined the program, which was designed to groom cross-cultural leaders. 

As she came from "an extremely humble background," Kariuki was deeply grateful, and also determined to use the chance as a steppingstone to realize her goals, which included making a contribution to Kenya's development.

Thrilling Experience

The YCA was established in 2014 as an interdisciplinary master's program with the stated purpose of building bridges between China and the world. Young scholars receive a 12-month adventure in Beijing, followed by a year dedicated to writing a thesis and participating in internships. 

"The YCA brings together students who are really interested in China from all over the world," Kariuki explains. "Different students here have different backgrounds and interests, which makes it extremely interesting to debate countless issues. This is an extremely thrilling experience for me." 

In many ways, Kariuki, and the handful of African YCA scholars, can be considered pioneers. Of the nearly 220 scholars at YCA, a mere 11 are from the continent of Africa.

The YCA drew its name, and its spirit, from Peking University's first incarnation, Yenching University, which was founded in 1898. During the tumultuous years early in the 20th century, the university attracted the brightest minds in China, and it became a hotbed of political activism. The university has since played a leading role in China's intellectual, cultural and economic development. 

The academy's goal is to shape a new generation of leaders, to ensure they have a nuanced understanding of China and its role in the world. Professor He Yafei says YCA wants to groom cross-cultural leaders for our future world. "For this, YCA scholars need to understand the long Chinese history, its DNA; not only what China looks like, what it really is," he explains.

Leaving the Comfort Zone 

Moving to a foreign land and trying to make sense of a different culture is challenging, and especially so while also learning a new language and completing a master's program. Some might even suggest it is an overwhelming experience.

Kariuki was already well-versed in the Korean and Japanese cultures before she arrived in Beijing in September 2016. But her past experiences did not make her feel less stress when she moved to China.

"I came to China with zero Chinese-language skills. I could not order food, get a cab, buy stuff or ask for directions. Not being able to communicate was the most challenging part of getting used to life in China. But it pushes you out of your comfort zone," she says.

Technology helps her stay connected with her family and friends as a long-term expat. "I have been away from home for too long now, and I always have moments when I feel homesick. Some of the ways I cope … is through continuous communications with my friends back in Kenya." 

Thanks to Whats App, Kariuki can share her thoughts and feelings with her friends back home, and she can stay up to date on what is happening in Kenya. "This group has been the main reason I survived college, and it is still the reason why I am surviving my master's in China," she says.

Kariuki hopes to understand the lessons that can be drawn from China's stunning progress since its reform and opening up in 1978. She also hopes to adapt those lessons to developing countries, such as Kenya. 

"Fifty years ago China was invisible to the world," she says. "Today, China is a global leader, and is spearheading this century's international relations, culture and economics."

Wadeisor Rukato [Provided by Wadeisor Rukato]


Wadeisor Rukato, 23, a Zimbabwean who had lived in South Africa for most of her life, had participated in many activities on cross-cultural interactions. But nothing had prepared the young woman for her move to China in August 2015. At first, her excitement at discovering a new culture was accompanied by culture shock. 

"China is so very China and, therefore, my initial engagement with the country, and Beijing in particular, was one of extremely high levels of both shock and astonishment, almost all of the time," she says.

After she completed her degree in international relations at the University of Cape Town, Rukato began to look for postgraduate opportunities in other countries.

After someone at her alma mater mentioned Beijing's Yenching Academy, she decided to take the chance. 

"I applied on a whim, but the more I thought about what the opportunity meant, after I had submitted my application, the more I wanted to be accepted," she says.

In addition to being able to realize her goal of pursuing a master's degree in Asia, Rukato says she was attracted to YCA by its leadership-focused program, the rich and diverse network of peers, and the opportunity to "recreate" herself in one of the world's most interesting countries.

Identity in Question

After she arrived in Beijing, Rukato had to reconcile the new reality of her life in China with the forewarnings — expect to be stared at, there are no black people, etc — offered by friends and family. 

"Having been born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, my race and how it is necessarily political have always been something I am conscious of," she explains. "What I soon discovered in China was that the discourse on race was one with limited avenues for engagement. I struggled to not feel offended by people's stares, and by the potential fascination with the way I looked."

After more than one year in China, Rukato has been able to make sense of it all by sharing her experiences with people from diverse origins.

"I have found spaces where I can have the kinds of conversations I needed in the beginning. I have explored the nuanced treatment of race in the Chinese context," she says.

To make the most of her talent for writing, Rukato and three of her friends created an online platform to share their thoughts and experiences in China. Rukato has big ambitions for the project, From Africa to China.

"There are incredible opportunities for collaboration and storytelling in the Africa-China space, and I want us to be at the forefront of this," Rukato says.

Living in China comes with its fair share of challenges, especially for a young African woman. But for both Rukato and Kariuki, YCA has proven to be stimulating, inspiring and full of adventures. For the two women, those benefits have far offset their feelings of homesickness.

"When I reflect on being in China," says Rukato, "I feel a sense of being in the right place at the right time."



(Source: Women of China English Monthly February 2017 Issue)

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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