Julia Zielinski - 2015 Program Participant

Sunrise at Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Sunrise at the Tonle Sap in Cambodia

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

Since high school I have been interested in international affairs, but particularly in those regarding China. In college I continued to pursue greater understanding of the country through learning the language and taking related courses while working on an Environmental Studies major. As junior year was approaching, I decided it would be beneficial to take my studies to China for a more experiential semester abroad. I believed learning abroad in China—the location I had primarily been focusing my research opportunities on—would provide a depth of insight into the subject matter largely unattainable in just my studies in America.

Why did you choose IES Abroad’s program in Kunming?

With my long-term interest in China and its environmental issues, I thought studying abroad in China would be an excellent opportunity for me to improve my language skills and increase my understanding of what I had been learning about through mainly secondary means in my United States’ college. Having visited the country once before, in the more developed Eastern cities, I knew how damaging the air pollution was to my personal health. I was worried about living in a heavily polluted city for so many months, especially because of my passion for running.

Before searching for study abroad programs, I had never heard of Kunming in Yunnan province. However, I was told the city was not polluted like Eastern China and was mountainous with many beautiful scenic spots. As I love being outside and especially like spending time in the mountains, forests, and around lakes, I was further enticed to visit this new place. Additionally, the coursework focused around international relations of the area, understanding China, and transboundary environmental resource conflicts. The whole program seemed geared exactly towards my interests and was extremely relevant to my studies in the environment.

Songzanlin Monastery in Yunnan Province, China

The very top of the Songzanlin Monastery in Yunnan Province Shangri La

What was your favorite part about Kunming?

Kunming is a smaller, yet developed city in the Southwestern region of China. Away from the pollution of major eastern cities, the blue sky was almost always present, which meant I could actually fully experience the beauty of Yunnan’s well-preserved natural sites. The area is culturally diverse and geographically beautiful. I enjoyed hiking, biking, running, walking, and dancing in many locations in the city and seeing the different beautiful areas in the province.

What made your study abroad program one-of-a-kind?

The study abroad program I participated in is truly on the cutting edge of educating about the international relations and history of the ever-relevant Southeast Asia. Not only did my knowledge about China, a place with which I was already quite familiar, increase, but my understanding of and interest in Southeast Asian countries also grew from practically zero to a point of high comprehension and intrigue. The mobile learning trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand was especially valuable to completing the experience and solidifying what we had discussed throughout the semester. I feel as though I could live in any of the places we visited.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

I have met few people as knowledgeable and passionate about China and Southeast Asia as the staff members I worked with during my semester abroad. Their enthusiasm made the material all the more relevant and exciting. They were also always available to talk about matters outside of academics, no matter whether it was my future plans for research or some challenge I was facing with living in Chinese culture.

Hiking through Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Exploring the ruins at Angkor Wat

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had taken the time to write more postcards and record things that happened.

What was a normal day like for you as an international student in Kunming?

On a normal day, I would wake up very early to commute from my homestay to Yunnan University via public transportation. This time was usually spent attempting to review my Chinese vocabulary words and text for the day in anticipation of the Chinese dictation. After Chinese class, in which we spoke only Chinese, I would work in the student library for a while before going to my Chinese one-on-one session. I might grab lunch at the university dining hall, somewhere on the street, or from the popular jiaozi shop nearby.

In the afternoon I usually had another course before I would go for a run or to do a track workout at the university across yieryi dajie. After working on homework for a while in the library, I would commute home and eat dinner with my homestay. If there was time, I went to a public square to dance with my disco group. Finally, I would return home to finish up homework, check emails, and sleep for the night.

What was your favorite thing to do on your free time?

Without a doubt, I would say that dancing with my disco group at the public square was my favorite activity. Over time I became friends with the leader of the dance group and a number of the members. It was such a fun experience that I never would have been able to be a part of or have had the guts to try in the United States.

I took a course on contemporary Chinese society during my semester that enabled me to dance with the group more regularly as part of my fieldwork. How awesome is it to be able to experience something like that as part of your homework?

Lilies in Cuihu Lake in Kunming, China

Blooming lilies at Cuihu, the lake in the middle of Kunming

What were your housing arrangements like? What did you like best about it?

I lived in a homestay with a Chinese family for the semester. The best part of this experience was both the opportunity to practice my Chinese on a regular basis outside of the classroom and also the opportunity to really understand the Chinese family I was living with in the context of today’s Chinese society, something I was studying through my courses. It is particularly valuable to have such a personal connection to the place you live for so many months. My study abroad experience would not have been as significant without the homestay.

Now that you're home, how has studying abroad impacted your life?

My study abroad experience expanded my interest for China to Southeast Asia, and I have maintained interest in understanding the dynamics of the area since returning. I look at news articles and information about the region differently, with greater comprehension and interest than before. The time abroad also formed the foundation of some personal research I have started that relates to my environmental studies major and China. The area where I have focused my research is in Yunnan province where I lived for the semester, and I have enjoyed keeping connection with one of the places I could call home.