What's it like to study at a Chinese University?

September 19, 2019

If you are considering higher education in China, the first question you have is probably, what is it like to study at a Chinese university?

To satiate your curiosity, we asked our friends Camilla, Emily, Viktoria, and Fredericka* to share their experiences at Beijing universities.

*Name changed at interviewee's request

1. What Chinese university did you attend and when did you graduate?

Camilla: I attended Tsinghua University from 2012-2014.
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Emily: I attended Tsinghua School of Public Policy and Management from 2012-2014.
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Viktoria: I graduated in July 2017 from Tsinghua University.
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Fredericka: I graduated June 2019 from Renmin University.

2. What was your degree program?

Camilla: Masters in Public Administration for International Development.
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Emily: Masters in Public Administration in International Development.
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Viktoria: Masters in Business Journalism.
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Fredericka: Masters in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages.

3. Is it necessary to know Chinese to study at a Chinese university?

Camilla: It wasn't necessary, but understanding the history, culture and language was definitely an asset.
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Emily: Nope, although it helps with research for your thesis.
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Viktoria: No, the program was in English.
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Fredericka: Yes. For Masters students, Renmin requires minimum HSK 5 for admittance and to receive a scholarship. Before graduation we were required to pass HSK 6.

4. What was your level of Chinese going into the program?

Camilla: I attended six months of intense Chinese training (HSK 5).
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Emily: I was fluent in speaking but could not read or write.
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Viktoria: I could say nǐhǎo and xièxiè.
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Fredericka: I'd passed HSK 6 and could communicate fluently.

5. Why did you want to attend your university?

Camilla: Tsinghua offered a good course on the unique development path of China, with important international partnerships and high-caliber teachers.
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Emily: I was interested in International Development and wanted to meet people from around the world.
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Viktoria: Because of the program.
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Fredericka: I wanted to apply for a Chinese university that is known abroad, offered a full scholarship, and was well-equipped.

6. Are there scholarships available for international students who study at a Chinese university?

Camilla: International students had access to the Beijing Municipality Scholarship or the Tsinghua Scholarship. I was awarded the Tsinghua Scholarship of Merit for both years (waiving of tuition).
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Emily: Yes, everyone in my cohort got scholarships, from half to full.
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Viktoria: Yes. I was on the Chinese government scholarship, which covers tuition, accommodation, and a monthly stipend.
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Fredericka: Yes, I received a Chinese government scholarship.

7. How did you make friends during your time at university?

Camilla: Tsinghua offered orientation activities, birthday celebrations, and interactive workshops. I was also lucky because my cohort contained very interesting and bright people from all over the world.
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Emily: Since our class was small, we were super close. We'd go out for lunch and all lived in the same buildings. All our lessons were taken together too.
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Viktoria: Making friends with other foreign students was easy. We all were in the same boat, in a different country and culture.
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Fredericka: I didn't make many friends because I didn't live on campus and didn't have time to attend cultural activities. I focused on gaining experience by interning.

8. What was your favorite part about attending your university?

Camilla: The access to world-class teaching, libraries, and lectures from world leaders and intellectuals.Tsinghua has many partnerships, so we had joint courses with Columbia University, the World Bank, and also the possibility to intern for thinktanks. I spent a year at the Carnegie Tsinghua Centre, which was fundamental in my career.
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Emily: Definitely the quality time spent with my class.
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Viktoria: The multicultural character of my program and lectures given by guest professors. The academic environment gave me interesting perspectives on China that I wouldn't have gained otherwise.Tsinghua's campus is beautiful and huge; it often felt like living in a small town within Beijing. There are many activities and student groups. And the food in the canteens was cheap, and surprisingly tasty.
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Fredericka: The food and location. Renmin is known for its Korean cuisine. The school is in Zhongguancun, neighboring other universities and Haidian Huangzhuang shopping district.
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Also, internet and drinking water on campus is free. There is a cinema and lots of restaurants and cafes.

9. What was your least favorite part?

Camilla: Professors don't reach out to students, though once students themselves reach out it's easy to find support. I wish I knew this from the beginning.
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Emily: All my prior schooling was in the States in a dynamic, engaging setting. I wasn't used to the lecture style of Chinese classrooms where questioning the teacher is taboo. We also had to avoid "sensitive political and social topics", which seemed to defeat the purpose of studying international development.
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Viktoria: The bureaucracy. Also, I wish I spoke Chinese when I arrived. Due to my Chinese inability I missed many interesting Chinese classes, making friends, and exploring the culture from a local perspective.
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Fredericka: Our Chinese classmates studied in Suzhou, not Beijing. We didn't know we would be separated from them. We also missed out on a lot because of poor communication between the administration and foreign students.

10. Do you have any advice for foreigners applying to study at a Chinese university?

Camilla: Choose a subject you are passionate about and research the program. Ask for scholarships. Take advantage of university resources. Do your readings and dialogue with your professors. Be ready to discover a new culture and way of thinking. And learn Chinese!
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Emily: Come with an open mind. Embrace new experiences without comparing them to back home. Get to know your professors.
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Viktoria:  Research the program, what you can gain from it, and how you can contribute. I recommend learning Chinese in advance, or at least taking classes once you arrive.
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Bring all the necessary documents with you, as getting them certified from your home country is long and tiring.
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Have no expectations.
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Fredericka: Get a scholarship! If you aren't sure about enrolling in a degree program, I recommend a language course instead.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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