Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Letter to Prospective Students: Reflecting on my HNC and SAIS DC Experience

Dear Prospective Student,

You're trying to decide where to go for graduate school. Trust me, I understand the stress! I had to choose between nine of the top policy programs in the country. It was not an easy decision, and I didn't know what to expect from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) Certificate + SAIS MA(IR) program, but I got exactly what I was looking for: a top-notch education in the Chinese language, a large network across sectors, and deeper quantitative and policy writing skills. The only unforeseen circumstance was the coronavirus pandemic. But even in those uncertain times, the HNC helped along the way. Ultimately, it was up to me to make the experience everything that I wanted it to I did! Here's how.

I attended the HNC both before the pandemic hit the world and during, so for the first semester I lived in Nanjing and for the second I attended the HNC virtually. The city of Nanjing's moderate size (in comparison to other Chinese cities) made it the perfect place to practice Mandarin and learn Chinese culture on a daily basis. In one instance, I remember walking down the street back to campus when all of a sudden, every car stopped on the street and started beeping their horn. It was the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Nanjing holds so much history, both positive and painful, so my deepest regret was not exploring Nanjing more before the pandemic hit. I highly suggest visiting the Nanjing Massacre Museum, Sun Yatsen's Mausoleum, and Xuanwu Lake at least once during your time in Nanjing to learn more about Chinese history and culture, and to snag some great pics. 

Student picture at Xuanwu Lake

The virtual experience certainly presented its challenges, but my cohort took advantage of its opportunities. If your cohort experiences the HNC virtually, you all should own the experience too. Even though I found it difficult to transition from English to Mandarin throughout the day, virtual classes held the same rigor as in-person classes, which helped me maintain my Chinese proficiency. I even started my Chinese teaching business during this time! Speaking Chinese outside of the classroom while attending the HNC virtually from Chicago helped immensely, especially because I live in a non-Chinese speaking household. The HNC’s Banwei planned regular events to maintain interaction within the community, such as assigning language partners to interested students and bringing the student lounge to Zoom every week. From the U.S., I also retained the valuable relationships I made in the HNC community. I kept in contact with HNC alumni, who were incredibly helpful during my job search. The advice given by HNC alumni is top-tier and I'm extremely grateful to be a part of that distinguished network now. You never know, I could be a resource for you one day!

HNC Student Lounge on Zoom

After starting the SAIS MA(IR) portion of my program last year, I wrote a blog for a more in-depth discussion of my transition from the HNC to SAIS DC. Now, as a graduate, I realize how perfectly the two programs complement each other. At SAIS DC, I honed in more on the quantitative skills and policy writing. My (mostly) virtual classes were filled with field-experienced professors and interesting students who came from all walks of life and with a real-world understanding of diverse regions, subject areas, and sectors. Having arrived at SAIS DC with a solid background in Sino-global relations from my HNC Certificate studies, I expanded what I learned at the HNC in my SAIS DC class research papers. For instance, I wrote a final paper on Chinese ethnic minorities based on topics discussed in the HNC's Ethnic Minorities in China course that I wanted to explore further. Especially since I am not a native Chinese speaker, it was nice to explore these topics in English and to be able express myself more deeply in my native tongue. 

The SAIS DC population added to my existing HNC network. I spoke with professors, students, and alumni to understand sectors of interest and steps I should take to succeed in those field. In the process, I strengthened my friendships with HNC classmates who, like me, transitioned from the HNC to SAIS DC. I'm so happy to have made lifelong friends! I met other students outside of class through virtual happy hours, events through clubs and centers, and group projects. The easiest place for a former HNC student to start making friends at SAIS DC is through the China Studies department. Whether or not you choose to focus on China at SAIS DC, the China Studies department boasts a large number of China scholars and can provide an extended HNC experience. 

HNC Students meet as DC opens up (far left: Brandy Darling)

Through this hybrid experience in the HNC Certificate + SAIS MA(IR) program, I gained a wealth of skills—quantitative, language, and writing—and I'm now ready to use them to advise companies, governments, and even individuals on how to interact with China. The HNC gave me first-hand experience with Chinese scholars, and SAIS DC taught me hard skills to be competitive both in and out of the so called "China space." I hope that my experience has given you a better idea of what to look for in a graduate program and how the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s programs could help you meet your academic and professional goals.

Good luck!
Brandy Darling

Written by Brandy Darling, HNC Certificate ‘20 + SAIS MA ‘21