Year Of The Snake: Time To Study in China?

by Colin Speakman

Chinese tradition believes that important changes happen in Snake years. So it’s significant that in 2013, the Year of the Snake, China — which has the world’s second-largest economy and is in a crucial bilateral relationship with the U.S.A. — made multiple once-in-every-10 years leadership changes.

The Temple of Heaven in Bejing, China. Photo credit to Dominic James Fusco
The Temple of Heaven in Bejing, China. Photo credit to Dominic James Fusco

For anyone entering today’s workforce, China is a key country to understand better and Mandarin is one of the most valuable languages to know how to speak. At the turn of the 21st century, fewer than 2,000 Americans were studying in China at college level each year. Now, that figure is closer to 15,000 - making the Middle Kingdom the fifth most popular study abroad destination in the world. The year 2013 marks the halfway stage of the U.S. Administration’s 100 Thousand Strong Project, aimed at getting a total of 100,000 Americans studying in China over a 4-year period. China must be important!

China is still a non-traditional destination for American students, compared to Western Europe, and so it attracts special scholarship support. Studying abroad in China is an experience that makes applicants stand out in job searches. This country attracts a very diverse range of American college students, who all rapidly feel welcomed and at home. 

Three of the big cities in China - Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing (all in the East) - are the most popular destinations for international students. Xi’an and Chengdu (gateways to the West) come up behind. However, given the diversity of life in this vast country, anyone studying abroad in China should travel to more than one city (or a rural area) — either as an excursion that’s built into a study program, or in their free time.

Key Decisions To Make For Studying Abroad In China

Beijing, China

Mandarin Focus Or General Studies? 

It is not necessary to have studied Mandarin before to study abroad in China. Mandarin language courses exist at all levels. They typically take up a lot of class time, but it is a great way to learn. In Chinese universities, courses taught in English can be limited in availability, though there are some. If a student is fluent in spoken and written Mandarin, then a lot more courses are available at Chinese institutions. Programs offered through U.S. universities and third-party study-abroad providers generally offer more choice for students seeking courses taught in English — in fields such as art, business, culture, economy, and history. These programs also tend to provide more extras such as cultural trips, site visits, and guest speakers, and offer more availability of a U.S. institution’s transcript.

Semester Or Summer Study? 

Semester opens up more choice to those considering a program at a Chinese university. Many of them have a Mandarin-focused international semester program. There is no summer school in the Chinese universities’ academic year, but some offer a special international one. However, summer has a wide range of programs in cooperation with U.S. colleges and third-party providers. Americans tend to study abroad in China during the summer months more than during other timespans.

Shanghai, China

Just Study, Or Intern In China Too? 

Study abroad normally involves interaction with other students in a university setting, and along with that, a part-time internship is a popular choice. There has been a notable rise in students coming to China to work as unpaid interns in professional settings — for academic credit, to gain skills in their chosen field, and boost their resume. Internships abroad in China often involve opportunities to enhance workplace learning with a supporting course at the host institute. A full-time internship involves building credit in the workplace only. Both are good additions to a resume.

Where In China Should I Go? 

Beijing and Shanghai are global mega-cities with populations of 20 million and 23 million, respectively. They provide a fast-paced lifestyle, and contain many famous sites that students ought to go see. Some third-party providers focus on these massive international cities because they provide such a wide range of opportunities for learning for international students wishing to study in China. The city itself becomes the classroom, with educators taking advantage of many cultural and historical sites to bring students. 

In Beijing - as the cultural, historical and political capital, one sees China’s past and its current state. In Shanghai - as the economic capital and innovation zone, one sees the future. For a gentler pace and lower living costs, in still important provincial capitals, Chengdu, Nanjing and Xi’an all have merit. For the most Western atmosphere in this part of the world, the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong would be the choice. Studying abroad in Hong Kong puts students in the middle of 7 million people in a compact, energetic 24-hour city. The universities in Hong Kong have particularly high reputation, but with noticeably higher living costs than the mainland.