Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Benjamin Sorkin | 11/07/2022

I was teaching a seminar titled “Astrosociology: Science Fiction and Space in Everyday Life,” based on a seminar I took at Harvard last fall. My hope in teaching this seminar was to show students how the sciences and social sciences can meaningfully intersect with the hope of building on students’ interests in science and their ability to apply it to the world around them.

This past month [2019], I travelled to Shanghai, China in order to teach at the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC). The premier educational conference in China, HSYLC offers hundreds of high school students from around the country the opportunity to engage with a liberal arts curriculum and explore their individual academic interests. 

Our program also had a residential student life component, given that we wanted to mirror the Harvard experience for our students. Each of the seminar leaders were paired off and led a “House,” similar to the way our residential upper-class houses work back on campus. My co house leader Mohib, another Milken Scholar who I’m sure you’ll be receiving a report from as well, made the experience of house bonding and getting students excited to be part of our House that much better. Cultivating traditions and getting students to buy into our chants was difficult at first, but insanely rewarding when they later would chant without us having to prompt them. We led house bonding, were tasked with leading an extracurricular (mine was photography) and taught the students about the academic research process through a capstone class. We were aided by an invaluable team of Chinese teaching assistants who supported us both in the classroom (with translating and handling teaching logistics) and emotionally/physically (we all lost our voices after Karaoke and they were on hand with cough drops and tea). My teaching assistant, Lorraine, shared a lot with me about her life in China and what it means to be a 20 something year old like myself in a country and culture completely different from mine. She’ll luckily enough be studying at NYU this semester so hopefully I’ll get to see her back in New York at some point.

Living at Shanghai High School was definitely a learning and eye-opening experience for me. The dorms were four to a room on bunkbeds, and the bathrooms had no mirrors (to prevent girls from doing their makeup). Our mattresses were really just a thin pad on top of the wooden bunk, supposedly for the purpose of spine health and strength – the rooms were at least air conditioned thankfully. All of our meals were taken in the dining hall, which was exactly how you’d expect a high school dining hall to be. Every meal came with a block of rice and accompanying vegetables and protein. In China, the tap water will make you sick, so we had to be extra careful (even when handling washed fruit) and went through probably thousands of water bottles throughout the week. But all that being said, living on campus with the students provided a really great opportunity to get to know them, seeing them around campus and in the dining hall.

Thankfully, our conference staff did a great job of planning outings for us and running food deliveries when we got tired of the dining hall fare. We took a few trips, one to the oldest Buddhist temple in Shanghai, another to the Bund (the iconic stretch of skyscrapers in the bay), and lastly to a traditional Chinese street market. In these chances to actually see Shanghai, I was shocked by just how massive and sprawling Shanghai is – we were an hour away from the airport and weren’t even really in “Shanghai” while on campus. Shanghai appeared to me to be a city that blended a lot of traditional Chinese history with the modern developments of what a typical capitalist city and economy would produce. In China, the language barrier felt much more prevalent than in other Asian countries I’d been too. Less people spoke English, less signage was in two languages, and most shops and clerks that we interacted with didn’t seem like they interacted with English speaking foreigners very often.

I knew very little about Shanghai and China generally before this trip; visa restrictions for travel don’t really promote cross-cultural exchange. My time in Shanghai opened my eyes to a new country and gave me a newfound appreciation for it. I’d love to go back and explore more that China has to offer – from what I learned, the variety of landscapes and ecosystems given its massive size make it a place worth spending some serious time in. Not being able to freely use the internet given censorship restrictions and the constant presence/feeling of surveillance was definitely uncomfortable and made me much more aware of the contrast between this and American values and norms. Security cameras were everywhere (even on campus/in class buildings) and I felt like I had to be extremely cautious about what I discussed in the classroom. At the time that we were teaching, Hong Kong’s civil protests were ramping up in response to a Chinese extradition bill, alongside the heightened tensions of the trade war with the US.

Nevertheless, the trip was an eye-opening experience and was another great opportunity to hone my teaching skills and think about international education from a holistic perspective through the lens of a unique culture. This experience didn’t necessarily make my change my mind about not becoming a teacher, but it was a much more enjoyable teaching experience given that I was instructing something that I was interested in alongside an age group of kids that I like to work with. I’d been mulling over potentially spending some time in Japan after graduation teaching English given that there are a lot of opportunities for it, and this experience makes me give that option a little more viability. I will certainly come back to China in the future and get to see more of it a teacher or tourist.      

Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China Picture 2