Back to SummaryAlexandra To - Student Profile
MAJOR: Symbolic Systems
Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in a town of 15,000 people gave me a very strong desire to maintain and learn more about my cultural identity. Except for my Hong Kong born paternal grandfather, my family has been in the US for generations, which creates a really fun amalgamation of values and cultural practices in my home. It has always left me with this feeling of wanting to travel to the “old country” and see what we’ve carried over and what life is like now.
We’re really big on travel in my house. My parents are originally from LA, so when they decided to raise my three little sisters and I in our small hometown, they knew they wanted to supplement our education and widen our views with overseas travels. Especially living in a place like Stanford, I think it’s incredibly important to take on this philosophy and get out of the “bubble” and experience places that you’ve never been to before. Some of our more memorable trips were to Japan and Germany, but China has always felt like it would be taking things to the next level in terms of testing language abilities and exploring. No matter what your Chinese language skills are, living in Beijing for 3 months will vastly improve them, trust me.
At sixteen, I took it upon myself to start the mildly daunting task of learning Mandarin Chinese online. This ended up eventually leading me into 2nd year Modern Chinese at Stanford my freshman year. It was definitely a huge change from online classes, but I think I learned more in that course in two weeks than I did in a month of online class!
So now that I’m done telling you all of this background information, I can finally explain what made me decide to go to Beijing as a sophomore! First, I knew from my first Admit Weekend that I wanted to go to China because it’s been a goal of mine for a long time. Second, starting at 2nd year on the language track as a freshman was fun, but I knew with whatever major I decided on, I would never have the time to keep up with 3rd year, so I needed to go as soon as possible to use what language would remain when I stopped taking courses. Third, Stanford is wonderful, but it’s an intense and quite contained environment, taking a break and exploring around halfway through my career at the university seemed like an amazing way to get some perspective on what I wanted to do for my remaining two years.
Both Stanford’s BOSP and Peking University take such good care of you in Beijing. We were housed in the international dorm at PKU (Beida), which is absolutely amazing, and for many of the classes, you get to engage with actual Beida students. In History of U.S.-China Relations, a class comprised of half-Stanford students and half-Beida students, many times we got to engage with these young, modern Chinese students and discuss some of the more controversial issues regarding our two countries (the three T’s – Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen). A few times the discussions continued after class, there were definitely a lot of surprises for me in some of their philosophies, but they were supported so well that I was fascinated. I’ve tended to lean a lot more towards the techie path, so I don’t think I ever expected to be so interested in modern Chinese history and politics, but now I can’t get enough of it!
The absolute best thing about life at Beida and in the Beijing program to me was the whirlwind of travel. Almost every weekend we had some trip planned, either as a day trip to sites in the city, or weekend long trips all over the country! The most remarkable one for me was on one of our long weekends. A large group of us ended up planning a trip to Huangshan, the mountains that inspired the floating mountains in the movie, Avatar! Getting the train tickets booked and the hostels set up with the resources at the Stanford-PKU Center, but finding our way around cities in which people spoke Mandarin with many different regional accents was a much bigger challenge. We took a 16-something hour “hard sleeper” train to mid-South China, took a bus up to the mountain, and then hiked up 8 km of sheer steep stairs. The eight of us then crammed into one room that somehow had a bunk for each of us and passed out after the very long couple days of travel and climbing. It was exhausting, but insanely fun!
The most important thing to know is that BOSP in Beijing is totally customizable to you. While it was my first time in China, for many people, it was their 3rd or 4th. If it’s one of your first time’s travelling overseas, the on-site advisors are friendly and so helpful, but if you’re a more comfortable traveller, there is a lot of freedom to both explore the city and the country in your free time. My experience certainly made me feel incredibly independent, and I’d love to share more of my thoughts on China with you!