Studying in Hong Kong: A chat with Ben Madler

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Q: What did you do when you arrived at City University (CityU)?

A: When I first arrived in Hong Kong it was wet, humid and warm. I got to the student residence - or ‘rez’, as it’s known - checked in, and then made my way to my room, opening the door cautiously to reveal lying on his bed, my roommate. He was a cheery, slightly eccentric American, whom I became good friends with. He had already been there for a semester, and so gave me a tour of the campus and introduced me to a few people.

Q: What was the best part about your semester abroad?

A: For me, what I will treasure the most from the exchange are the people I met. I have never met so many people, with such speed and intensity in my life. It is the people that you meet that dictates the experience one has. My friends and I came to the conclusion that despite all that Hong Kong has to offer, we would not have had the continuously euphoric experience we had, if not for the people we met.

Q: Did you do any travelling?

I was incredibly lucky with the people I met, as we became a tight group from all corners of the earth. Together, we enhanced one another’s experience. With these friends I travelled to Taiwan and mainland China during Chinese New Year and Easter respectively, as well as Macau, completing ‘all of china’, so to speak.

It quickly becomes apparent that a semester abroad has an inbuilt filter, as those who are there have chosen to be there. It is a certain type of person who takes a semester abroad, meaning that the likelihood that one finds others with things in common is high.

The paradox of a semester abroad is that despite it being a university programme with an obvious need to study while one is there, it is not studying that the semester is about. The point of going abroad is as the cliché says, to broaden one’s horizons, to go out of one’s comfort zone, to make new experiences and ultimately to have an adventure.  

Q: Did you take part in any activities?

A: Once I had settled, I got involved with the CityU rugby team as well as the English mentoring scheme. Joining the rugby team created a way to meet and bond with local students, by playing a sport we shared an enjoyment of. There is a strange dynamic between the locals and exchange students, one that initially came across as being given a cold shoulder by the locals. But perseverance in making friends with local students paid dividends and only enhanced my experience.

The reasons I joined the English mentoring scheme were similar. From both these experiences I not only had fun, but also got an insight into the real world lives of Hong Kong natives, as well as feeling more connected to and involved with the city in which I was living.

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Studying in Hong Kong: A chat with Ben Madler

Q: What about the academic experience? Did it differ from your degree at Swansea University?

A: The studying aspect of the semester abroad is different from that in Swansea. The focus is much more on learning and repeating, rather than critical and independent thinking. As a scholar of International Relations, much of my time at Swansea is spent discussing, thinking about and debating conflicting approaches, theories and ‘ways of the world’.

However, at CityU the focus was much more on learning these theories and knowing what they are about and the views that they represent, rather than being critical of them. This seemed to reflect the locals’ work attitude, which seems to measure hard work not in how much gets done, but how long they sit at a desk.

As somebody who is much more of a ‘thinker’ than a ‘learner’, I found this quite difficult at times. This was reflected in my grades, when comparing those for the few essays I wrote to the exams I sat. However, this is not an issue: it’s just different. The benefits of the semester as a whole, in my opinion, far outweigh the issues one might have with the learning style. For those studying subjects such as politics or IR, it is important to note that there are still sensitive topics when it comes to discussions around China and its government, so one needs to be delicate in one’s approach to these discussions.

Q: What about the workload? Was it challenging to adapt?

A: The workload is more than manageable. As is the case at Swansea, it picks up toward the end of the semester as exams approach, though if one is sensible in their time planning this is not an issue.

Overall, the lecturers are approachable and in my experience were willing to meet with me if requested. Deadlines and such I found to be more confusing than as Swansea, as every lecturer is more autonomous in how they can assess you and what form the assessments will take. Again, this is not an issue if one pays attention to the course outline documents one receives for every module.

Q: Academically, is there anything students considering a semester abroad in Hong Kong should be mindful of?

A: Be aware that anything one wants to do at CityU, such as changing modules or getting your ‘start of/end of placement’ forms signed, is a bureaucratic process to match that of a passport application. It took some time for me to get used to this, but with persistence and patience things can be done. It helped me to become friendly with one of my professors who managed to speed things up. 

A top tip I can give is that when choosing modules before one leaves for Hong Kong, choose 6 as opposed to 4. One needs a total of 4 modules to pass the semester, but they are much easier to drop than to pick up, so choosing 6 means one can drop the two one finds least interesting, saving hassle and bureaucracy. 

Q: What will you take away from your experience?

A: The most satisfying thing about my semester abroad is that I can be at peace with myself, knowing that I put every effort into making the experience that which it was. I boarded the plane out of Hong Kong with no regrets, with nothing I still wanted to do but hadn’t, and with a feeling that I had made the absolute most of an opportunity I value at this point more than at the beginning of it all.

When my friends and I said our fair wells, we all agreed that we ‘had done it well’.

Q: What would your advice be to those considering a semester abroad?

A: For anyone reading this who plans to go on a semester abroad, make note that an experience such as this requires effort at times, and if one wishes to reap the enormous benefits, there is no time to be passive. I can only recommend going away for a semester, as apart from the fact that once you finish your semester you find yourself perfectly placed to travel Asia, the exposure to new places, new people, new cultures, new climates, and all together new experiences can only be a positive experience.

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