Caitlin Shepherd, MPA/IEM ’19

China Dream Practicum

Before embarking on the Understanding the China Dream practicum, I had traveled to China many times over the last 10 years; first as a study abroad student, then as a teacher, and a few times for travel. During this time, my Mandarin ability has improved, my understanding of Chinese history, culture, and regional nuance has grown, and my overall interest in China has deepened steadily. These experiences, however, have occurred outside of the realm of academia, and have been mostly self-directed purely out of curiosity of one of the oldest civilizations on this earth.

Fall 2017 was my first semester at MIIS, and one of the first classes that I signed up for was China: Trade, Development, and Diplomacy with Professor Wei Liang. This, for me, was the first time that I was studying China from an academic/analytical perspective through the lens of policy. Class discussions were lively: a diverse mix of students from across China and its various territories, and both domestic and other international students with varying degrees of experience studying China, either in-country or in a classroom. This course has by far been my favorite at MIIS, because not only was I deeply interested in the subject matter, but through the course I was able to contextualize several experiences I had had within China’s borders. It was during this course that I also first heard about the Understanding the China Dream practicum, and with my interest in China ever growing, I knew I had to sign up.

The practicum itself represented a great learning experience for me. As an MPA/IEM student, and as a Graduate Assistant for the duration of the trip, I was able to apply lessons learned in my studies in addition to gain hands-on experience with leading a short-term study abroad trip. I saw the importance of planning in the stages of pre-departure, the duration of the practicum, and the reintegration period. Organizing the logistics for a group of 20 students/professors with varying degrees of experience in travel, specifically in China, revealed the importance of clear, effective communication both before and during the trip. Another layer of this experience was to witness fellow students, specifically those who had never been to China, begin from a place of shock and move to a place of ease during the process of cultural immersion. As someone who is passionate about intercultural competence, it was a privilege to travel with them (literally and figuratively) on this journey, discovering China not just from a place of intellect but also from an embodied experience. Overall, this dimension of my experience was extremely enriching, and certainly brought with it a fresh perspective of the future career(s) I might pursue in the areas of study abroad management.

“A student in the grand sea of rapid urbanization.”

As for the research portion, I am forever grateful at the diverse array of folks we were able to talk to. Though I have had experience in China, I most likely would have not crossed paths with the demographic of individuals we interviewed, at least for some time. From conversations with a local Chinese NGO, to the manager of investment operations at the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, to professors at various Chinese universities, to directors of Chinese SOEs, to university students investing in social enterprise, to environmental conservationists, the array of perspectives shared throughout the trip represented the rich, nuanced diversity and the flurry of activity currently happening in China. Overall, participating in this practicum deepened both my understanding of and interest in China. It was an opportunity to build on my existing experience within the country, and certainly has paved the way for further exploration of interests.

As I type up my notes from our field research reflect on the trip, I settle on one conclusion: it is impossible to understand a country and its policies from a purely academic, or intellectual, headspace. One can analyze, synthesize, and hypothesize from outside and inside borders all one wants, but the process will inevitably leave out the embodied nuance that is happening on the ground. Policies affect everyone differently, and how each person reacts or responds to these effects will also be different. This brings to light the importance of employing empathy, and paying attention to language learning, cultural familiarity, and a passion for history in order to contextualize everything that is happening. This, ultimately, I believe, also highlights the importance of self-awareness in one’s relationship to the subject matter one is studying.

Though the research trip has concluded, the process of integrating the lessons learned from the experience is still unfolding. I will continue to reflect as I continue my journey of travel throughout the summer before returning to MIIS for the fall semester. And I can say with certainty that the feeling of gratitude for having participated will continue on through my time at MIIS and beyond.

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