"Coming to Yenching Academy was one of the best decisions I have made," says 22-year-old Harriet Kariuki, from Kenya. Last September, Kariuki joined the ranks of other outstanding young men and women from 42 countries and regions when she officially became a member of Yenching Academy (YCA), an elite international program at China's most prestigious university, Peking University.
As a young adult living in a small village in Kenya, Kariuki's life took an unexpected turn in 2012, when she obtained a full scholarship to Harvard. After she graduated from Harvard, Kariuki jumped at the opportunity offered by YCA and she joined the program, which was designed to groom cross-cultural leaders.
As she came from "an extremely humble background," Kariuki was deeply grateful, and also determined to use the chance as a steppingstone to realize her goals, which included making a contribution to Kenya's development.
The YCA was established in 2014 as an interdisciplinary master's program with the stated purpose of building bridges between China and the world. Young scholars receive a 12-month adventure in Beijing, followed by a year dedicated to writing a thesis and participating in internships.
"The YCA brings together students who are really interested in China from all over the world," Kariuki explains. "Different students here have different backgrounds and interests, which makes it extremely interesting to debate countless issues. This is an extremely thrilling experience for me."
In many ways, Kariuki, and the handful of African YCA scholars, can be considered pioneers. Of the nearly 220 scholars at YCA, a mere 11 are from the continent of Africa.
The YCA drew its name, and its spirit, from Peking University's first incarnation, Yenching University, which was founded in 1898. During the tumultuous years early in the 20th century, the university attracted the brightest minds in China, and it became a hotbed of political activism. The university has since played a leading role in China's intellectual, cultural and economic development.
The academy's goal is to shape a new generation of leaders, to ensure they have a nuanced understanding of China and its role in the world. Professor He Yafei says YCA wants to groom cross-cultural leaders for our future world. "For this, YCA scholars need to understand the long Chinese history, its DNA; not only what China looks like, what it really is," he explains.
Leaving the Comfort Zone
Moving to a foreign land and trying to make sense of a different culture is challenging, and especially so while also learning a new language and completing a master's program. Some might even suggest it is an overwhelming experience.
Kariuki was already well-versed in the Korean and Japanese cultures before she arrived in Beijing in September 2016. But her past experiences did not make her feel less stress when she moved to China.
"I came to China with zero Chinese-language skills. I could not order food, get a cab, buy stuff or ask for directions. Not being able to communicate was the most challenging part of getting used to life in China. But it pushes you out of your comfort zone," she says.
Technology helps her stay connected with her family and friends as a long-term expat. "I have been away from home for too long now, and I always have moments when I feel homesick. Some of the ways I cope … is through continuous communications with my friends back in Kenya."
Thanks to Whats App, Kariuki can share her thoughts and feelings with her friends back home, and she can stay up to date on what is happening in Kenya. "This group has been the main reason I survived college, and it is still the reason why I am surviving my master's in China," she says.
Kariuki hopes to understand the lessons that can be drawn from China's stunning progress since its reform and opening up in 1978. She also hopes to adapt those lessons to developing countries, such as Kenya.
"Fifty years ago China was invisible to the world," she says. "Today, China is a global leader, and is spearheading this century's international relations, culture and economics."
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