Yuan "Sunny" Yuan '13
Major: History and Mathematics - Economics
Hometown: Shanghai, China
The Spirit of Agnes Scott and Study Abroad
As a student from China, I saw America as my take-off point. From Agnes Scott, I have been able to roam the world and “study abroad abroad.” My stays in Poland, Cambodia and Belgium would not have been possible had I not come to Agnes Scott.
From my very first day on campus, I have been constantly inspired and encouraged by the spirit of Agnes Scott—follow your heart, get prepared, seize opportunities, chase your dreams and be a socially-responsible person. I carry this spirit with me wherever I go and, interestingly enough, it is when I am away from Agnes Scott and studying in other countries that I truly understand the gist of this spirit. This is why I love Agnes Scott so much: it installs a strong and resilient spirit in your mind, encouraging you to go far, and you realize it is this spirit that has made every footstep of yours on a foreign land possible.
As a history student focusing on post-1919 Europe and modern Asia, I chose Vesalius College in Belgium as my official study abroad destination. Every course is taught in English and the college employs a liberal arts curriculum.
At Vesalius, my favorite class was “Germany under National Socialism” which allowed me to continue to explore World War II and its ramifications. I also enjoyed “European Studies,” which took us on trips to five cities important in European history. For example, we went to Cologne to study about the Roman Empire and to Bruges to study the Middle Ages.
In addition to taking history courses, I had the chance to build my understanding of business. Vesalius’ “Introduction to Business” course and my internship at Management Centre Europe (MCE) perfectly complemented each other with theoretical and hands-on studies of how business influences and changes our society.
Since MCE had just recently extended its scope to the Chinese market, I was responsible for expanding the database of Chinese firms doing business in Europe and researching the biggest Chinese corporations. It was just amazing to be able to work on China-related topics in Europe as a Chinese student from an American college. Also, the fact that Europe can no longer ignore China’s economic contribution makes me feel proud as a Chinese.
Since I had spent much time working in the non-profit sector, I had always believed it was the most important force behind the betterment of human beings’ lives. However, I realized from my internship at MCE that business can also make a difference to the world as new technologies and more sustainable manufacturing processes will improve general living conditions, and some of these improvements cannot be achieved by non-profit organizations.
Unfortunately, Belgium also faces similar problems to the U.S. Living in Brussels and commuting to school every day, I constantly observed the way European people live. I noticed the increasing number of immigrants, especially those from Africa and Turkey, and it reminded me of the struggle for immigrants’ rights in the U.S. Thus, across the Atlantic, Western governments not only have NATO in common, but they also share the same social and political issues with no effective or fair solutions in sight.
I have been to Cambodia twice now. My interest in the country started because of one person, Alan Lightman, whose book Einstein’s Dreams was our required first-year reading. When he came to Agnes Scott in 2009, I went to his presentation just by chance, not knowing that it would change my life.
Touched by the photos of kids my age being forced to collect garbage for their livelihoods, I decided to volunteer in Cambodia that summer. On this first trip, I worked for six weeks at a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Pursat Province. The experience made me feel personally connected to the development of a country recovering from genocide merely some 30 years ago.
On my second trip, I went to Phnom Penh and worked as a leadership resident at Lightman’s Harpswell Foundation. The foundation has two dormitories where disadvantaged, but ambitious, female students live, take university-level classes and receive leadership training. At the foundation, the students work on critical thinking skills, improve their English and prepare for leadership roles in Cambodia.
As a leadership resident, I lived in the dorm, taught English classes and led newspaper discussions. The girls were independent and had inquisitive minds. They asked me all kinds of questions from geography to politics and were willing to share their dreams with me. Rather than saying that I taught them English and helped them with newspaper analysis skills, I would say it was a reciprocal experience, and I learned a lot from them as well.
This summer, I will return to the Harpswell Foundation to research the Khmer Rouge education initiatives that were connected to the atrocities of 30-plus years ago. Since the foundation’s students at are too young to remember these events, I hope to implement a Khmer Rouge education project which I believe is extremely important for students who will become future leaders of the country.
In between my trips to Cambodia, I participated in the Humanity in Action (HIA) fellowship program. HIA brings American and European students together every summer in the cities of Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Warsaw for a five-week program on minority rights and human rights issues. Approximately 90 students, 40 from America, are elected every year. I was very lucky to have been one of them and my interest in the Holocaust and the Cold War brought me to Warsaw. It was an unforgettable experience to join others of similar interests and gain insight into the ramifications of the events in twentieth-century Poland.
The Poland program included 18 students from America, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, China and Nepal. We spent the first three weeks listening to activists, professors and journalists who have done research on anti-Semitism, the fall of communism, discrimination against minorities and immigrants and women’s rights. For the last two weeks, we were divided into four teams and created a social campaign on a topic of our choice. The topics we chose this year ranged from employment discrimination against women to human trafficking to anti-Semitism to anti-rape. We concluded the program with a three-day conference in Berlin where all the fellows gathered to further explore human rights issues.
While in Poland, I became good friends with my other fellows. We went to bars and engaged ourselves in inspiring and enlightening conversations. We took buses in unfamiliar Warsaw to attend free, Saturday-morning Chopin concerts. We also enjoyed small concerts performed by two talented guitarists in our group.
The fact that Poland was just liberated from Soviet communism made me think about my own country and I realized how differently communism operated in Poland and China. I also learned about the economic development after the liberation, which I found extremely useful when comparing it to the open-market policy in China. My fellowship experience will continue to inspire me as I proceed to a career in public policy and public affairs on issues related to China.
First-Hand Experience Is Vital
Because of all my study abroad experiences, I also realize the burden on my shoulders to help others. The world faces both universal and country-specific issues that are in need of solutions. Although we are constantly exposed to such issues through the Internet and newspaper articles, without having seen them with our own eyes, we are unlikely to take action. Knowing is one thing, and making efforts to change is another. Without going abroad where we would gain a first-hand experience, we are very likely to be satisfied with living in our own small world. Only after we leave our comfort zone and make contact with people from different cultural backgrounds will we be able to take a different look at the world around us.