Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Highlight of Recent Graduates

This past May and June, I had the great honor of joining my classmates in walking across the Johns Hopkins SAIS and Hopkins-Nanjing Center commencement stages. It has been a challenging, yet rewarding two years, and I could not have done it without the friends I have made in this program. While I could go on about my experiences, advice, and journey through the program, I wanted to highlight some of my impressive classmates and friends here.  

Joseph Baldock, from North Carolina, studied in the Master of Arts in International Studies (MAIS) program, concentrating in Global Politics and China Studies. Cao YuanPeng, from 安徽省安庆市, was enrolled in the one-year HNC Certificate program. Abena Oduro is from Ghana, and studied in the HNC Certificate + SAIS MAIR program, focusing on economics, finance, China, and Africa.  

Why did you choose the program that you are enrolled in?  

JOE: I knew I was interested in International Relations with an emphasis on Politics and China Studies, so the MAIS seemed like the right program for me. I really liked the concept of being able to learn about China and global politics through a Chinese lens, especially using Chinese, while still being able to maintain academic freedom.  

Yuanpeng: My criteria for choosing courses are interest and professional relevance. I wanted to do some political science research, so the courses I took in the HNC Certificate program were mostly related to political science. 

Abena: I chose the HNC Certificate + SAIS MAIR program, because I thought it would give me a good understanding of learning in an American context versus learning in a Chinese context. As someone who was interested not only in international relations and improving Chinese proficiency, but also in China-Africa relations, I thought that I would get an even richer experience learning in both environments.  


Were there any challenges you faced during your studies? How did you overcome them?  

YuanPeng: The first challenge I encountered was the language. This was my first class in English and initially I couldn't fully understand what the teacher was saying in class. My solution was to turn on the subtitles during the class which allowed me to take better notes. The second challenge was writing. When completing my course papers, I often made mistakes in my English writing. I solved this by seeking help from my American classmates!

JOE: Having been out of school for a while before this, one challenge was getting back into the groove of doing academic reading and writing. It took a while of readjusting and talking to my peers for me to recalibrate back to academic writing.  

Abena: I really struggled at the beginning of the MAIR program in DC trying to understand how to go through readings, extract key information, allocate time between assignments, and pick up the relevant international relations jargon. The process happened again at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, learning the relevant vocabulary, reading articles, and writing in Chinese. But I overcame these challenges by practicing. It just takes time! Exposing yourself to having conversations with professors and students about those topics allowed me to get the information that I needed and learn how to use the terminology correctly. 


How do you see your future career trajectory after completing this program? OR What are your plans after graduating? 

Abena: In the next year I see myself completing my national service for Ghana, and going into the private sphere. So that looks like either consulting or researching with private companies and international trade and economics, which is my focus. I also see myself working closely in the China Africa space, perhaps with Chinese enterprises on the continent, or in some sort of China Africa field.  

JOE: This program has definitely changed my career trajectory. I’ve found that I really enjoy the analytical side of this field. This was a way for me to move from my previous field into one that fits more with think tank or academic work. I was able to realize my passion for these aspects through this program. 

YuanPeng: After completing the HNC program, I will be pursuing my PhD in China in September. In the future, I hope to do academic research in universities. Regarding my graduation plan, my plan is to go home and take a break first. 

Can you share any standout experiences or memorable moments from your time in the program?  OR What was your favorite memory at the HNC or SAIS?  

JOE: For me, the best part was being part of a community where you’re taking the same classes, interested in the same topics, interning at the same places, and building connections with people. The conversations I had with my classmates outside of class constantly sparked dialogue and helped me form my own ideas about what I was studying. This challenged me in ways that I had never considered. I was even able to publish a few articles that I had either co-authored or at least discussed and formulated with my classmates. The food-filled days and karaoke nights are memories I’ll always treasure. You know you’ve met someone special when they can sing and dance to Christmas songs for 4 hours straight as a group. 

Abena: It was the everyday life that really made me feel that the program was worth it, whether it was socializing with friends at happy hours in DC or catching up with HNC classmates about navigating classes. It was nice to get food and just socialize with friends during the weekend. Even though I wasn’t able to go to Nanjing this past year, I enjoyed my time in Taiwan—studying in cafes with friends, walking around in parks, and just generally enjoy life in Taipei. Sometimes it's the little things that are the most memorable.

YuanPeng: My most memorable experience at the HNC was when I graduated from the program and attended a piano recital by three American brothers, James, Chad, and Daniel, at a cafe near the center. International students from China sat together and enjoyed the beautiful music they brought together. Before that, I had never enjoyed a piano performance so close. It was an unforgettable experience for me. 


What was the best class you took?  

YuanPeng: My favorite classes would be Professor Mushkat's Corruption and Anti-Corruption course and Professor Hua Tao's Chinese Ethnicity course. Professor Mushkat always encouraged me when I had a hard time speaking in the class, and her classes are very informative. Professor Hua Tao is a very knowledgeable teacher who always shares interesting stories with us in class. 

Abena: The best class I took at HNC is 现代中国电影与社会with 杨柳老师. She was the coolest professor; she knew so much about Chinese music, the Chinese entertainment industry, directors and actors, and the terminology of filming scenes. Also, watching a new Chinese movie might be the best homework assignment ever. Our class had American, Chinese, and European classmates, making it such a rich experience discussing exciting media platforms, whether it be laughing at funny scenes or having different opinions on various characters. It was the most rewarding class I took in my entire two years, and I would definitely take the class again if I had the chance. 

JOE: It’s tough to narrow it down to one single class, but three that stood out to me were Qi Lingling’s Chinese Government and Politics, Shu Jianzhong’s Global Political Economy, and Hua Tao’s Ethnic Minorities class. Each had their own unique field of study, but one characteristic that they had in common was that they made me think deeply about the construction of the world without attempting to teach me a viewpoint. Each professor did an excellent job of challenging students without requiring students to agree. 


What advice would you give prospective students considering the program you’re enrolled in? For current students?  

JOE: For anyone coming into this program, try your best to understand your interests before beginning, but don’t feel that you need to hold steadfast to it. Develop a sense of where you feel you want to go and allow yourself to freely explore. For current students, do things outside of school. Don’t let the HNC become your only experience because it’s not meant to be that. Many experiences that shaped my career happened outside of the classroom. For anyone enrolling in the MAIS program, PLEASE start your thesis as early as possible. Honestly, begin taking time to research it in your first semester to at least find a direction. It may seem like you have ample time but coming from the sleepless months that myself and many others in my cohort experienced, you absolutely do not. I guarantee you’ll have better results in the end if you start early. 

YuanPeng: I think the greatest thing I got from the HNC is not only the knowledge I learned, but the friendships I made with people from all over the world. These precious friendships are my life treasures. Therefore, my advice to prospective students is to be bold and make friends with your classmates in Nanjing, who are all very friendly and willing to make friends. I believe one's insight is always limited, and by talking with friends from all over the world you can open your eyes and realize the diversity of the world. 

Abena: For prospective students looking at this program, brush up on your Chinese vocabulary before you start. Obviously, no matter how much you study, there's always going to be a learning curve at the beginning, but more exposure to Chinese writing, especially Chinese news sources, and Chinese IR vocabulary will be important. I would also suggest focusing on making connections because I learned so much from just talking with classmates who have really niche interests. Everyone here has such amazing backgrounds, interests and experiences. Lastly if possible try to take courses outside of your focus. While my MAIR concentration is on China, Africa, economics and finance, the film class was completely out of my concentration, and it was the most rewarding course I took.  


Written by Betty Thai, HNC Certificate + SAIS MAIR '23