“I’m a geographer, and geographers are interested in grounded knowledge. And we understand that to learn about a place, you have to put yourself in the place of study. Especially a place like China. You can’t exactly imagine it. When you do, you imagine wrong.” Professor of Geography Yu Zhou, together with Associate Professor of Political Science Fubing Su, is taking a class of 27 students to China this Spring so students can better apply the knowledge that they will learn in INTL 110 to the sights they will see in China.
Vassar’s International Study Travel class is offered once a year in conjunction with a spring break trip to the place of study. Professors submit proposals for this multi-disciplinary class each year, and the final class is chosen by the International Studies Steering Committee.
This year’s class and trip will focus on the effect of China’s development on the environment. Zhou said, “We’re interested in how China is reconciled or not reconciled the relationship between development and the environment.” The environmental focus will be on water projects, urban development, as well as food production.
The class will be able to observe all of these factors in the three of the largest cities in China: Shanghai, Wuhan and Beijing. In Wuhan, they will visit the sites of two of the world’s largest water projects, the Three Gorges dam and South-North water transfer project.
In Shanghai and Beijing they will visit university campuses as well as come in direct contact with the effects of urbanization. In contrast, they will also visit a minority area in the western part of Wuhan.
Zhou went on, “We will have to deal with the air pollution, water pollution to some extent. We will talk to Chinese scientists and social scientists to see what they’re doing. And we also have two schools who we have cultivated relationships with, that they have research going on.”
There was an application process in order to get into the class, Zhou explained. “Of course I say, ‘come to China.’ It’s great seeing a lot of students come talk to me but end up not applying for various reasons,” She said. Traveling is not just a time commitment, it is also a large financial undertaking.
“The College hasn’t been to China in ten years, because the Chinese currency appreciated and then, very quickly we went through the economic downfall. It became way too expensive to go,” Zhou said.
She went on, “Even though China is more expensive, but think about it, ten years ago it cost us $3,100, and now it’s only $3,500. So we’re actually being able to control the cost a little.” As for time concerns, Zhou added, “I also tell them, if you need to do a thesis, you can’t really go because I guarantee you have no time.”
Students from many different backgrounds have shown interest in the trip this year. Zhou said, “There were a lot of Asian-Americans, at least a lot more than previous trips, I think, understandably. But there are a lot of people who are international students, African-Americans, it’s a pretty diverse group!”
Yvonne Yu ’18, a biology major with an education correlate said she is going for the research aspect. “I applied because although I am of Chinese descent, I haven’t visited China much so I wanted to travel there. At the same time, I was interested in the environmental aspect because it is something I want to get involved with through research.” Yu hopes that while in China, she will form a lasting bond with the country. “I want to learn about environmental issues in the country, work with students from China and learn more about the language and culture,” She explained.
To make this trip, Zhou explained, the department is relying heavily on the Luce Grant. “Luce Foundation is one of the most major foundations for Asian Studies,” Zhou said.
She added, “Right now, the Luce Grant encourages science collaboration because most people interested in Asia are interested in the humanities: languages and art and that kind of thing. Science students don’t really have opportunities.”
Zhou said, “So the Luce Grant will fund six Environmental Studies faculty to go on the trip, and they’ll talk to their counterparts and find out what equipment, what kind of experiments they have, what kind of research they’re doing, and see what we could establish some collaboration in the future,” she explained.
Zhou went on, “The college budget has never applied to China, but we can’t say we’re an international trip if we never go to Asia. I think it’s great that we’re able to go!”
Cost is always an issue. As the price of tickets went up, Zhou explained, it became harder and harder to go to China. “So if you check, the college went to Caribbean, Cuba, Cuba, Caribbean. And it dawns on us that this is not really an international studies trip if we just keep going to Cuba. And even that costs a lot of money!”
In order to make this trip happen, Zhou said, she and Su worked hard to find affordable airlines. Zhou said, “It’s important to go to China.”
In addition to the funding for this class, Zhou mentioned that there are future plans to extend the College’s relationship with China. “We’re also going to apply for a more substantial grant from Luce. If we get the grant we fund more student research opportunities,” Zhou said.
“The Luce Grant we have right now is exploratory so it helps us go there and see what people in China are doing, and is there something we can collaborate on,” She went on. “So, if we got that grant, we could fund, and the faculty have established some collaborative relationships.”
Because the Luce Grant has a focus on the sciences, part of the application to be a part of INTL 110 includes what types of classes you have taken. Despite this requirement, the class certainly does not exclude freshmen. Amna Aslam ’19 is yet undeclared, but she is planning on majoring in biology. “I applied to the INTL 110 travel class because I was very interested in delving into the opportunity to research the various environmental issues that China is faced with presently and to learn more about the culture of China,” She shared. While in China, she said, she hopes to become more invested in Chinese culture. “I hope to get a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and etiquette along with more in depth knowledge about environmental problems and changes that surface in other parts of the world,” she said. She added, “I also hope to get better skills in researching the professional development that involves China.”
With all of China’s development, Zhou said there are many projects involving water processing, waste processing and industrial renovation. She said, “So if some of our faculty find partners there, then they would develop joint projects that could happen here, that could happen there.”
She added, “I mean, you can imagine if the collaboration works, we could fund the faculty to have some Chinese students start to work here and some of us could go over there. Also, if some students want to learn Chinese, they could start to have more JYA opportunities.”
These opportunities are important for increasing the diversity of the programs that Vassar offers. “We think in the long run we could then bring in more people from different disciplines. It could be social science, it could be humanity’s, because the universities we deal with are very big with a lot of different majors,” Zhou said.
“Travel is a way for you to learn. You can learn about China from books. But you probably know that’s very different,” Zhou said. She went on, “In the media there are representations that everybody knows about air pollution, but very few people understand how different political, economic, social, and cultural forces play in China. People can’t picture it.”
Kevin Pham ’18, an international studies major, hopes to go to China for that very reason. “The 2016 Vassar trip to China will broaden my understanding of humankind’s ability to drastically alter their geographic surrounding,” Pham said. “Through visits to developmental projects areas like the Three Gorges Dam and the high speed rail, I hope to see first hand the positive and negative impact of human’s quest to utilize the force of nature to their own benefit. Who are the winners and losers of such ambitious projects? What are the short-term and long-term impact on the environment?”
In addition, Pham, like Yu, hopes to connect with other students while in China. He said, “I hope to network with the students at Central China Normal University to ensure that I will continue educating myself about environmental development in China beyond the trip’s duration.”
In past trips to China, Zhou mentioned that the students and faculty haven’t had any trouble connecting with each other. “In China you eat together, so they had a lot of fun and they were really tight,” Zhou said. “And the lucky thing, also, is that we had a lot of faculty,” She added. “There’s a lot of faculty interest about going to China, probably more than students, I would say.”
Zhou concluded, “This time we also have a group of very interesting faculty as well. So students will learn from the trip leaders, obviously, but also from people on the trip who are learning about China and they have their own expertise,” Zhou concluded, “So it should be great!”