Fulfilling a Goal: Kelsey Sweeney ’17 Attends Chinese Studies Institute

a young women stands under a gothic style arch
Kelsey Sweeney ’17

This past summer, Kelsey Sweeney ’17 accomplished a goal she set in her first year at Rhodes: to study Chinese in China. Her interest in the Chinese language stems from her enthusiasm for international relations and economics. Sweeney, who has always had a dream of having an international development job, knew that mastering Chinese would give her a competitive edge in international policymaking, as well as enrich her studies as an economics and international studies bridge major. So once she completed the highest course level of Chinese offered by Rhodes (at the time; a higher level has now been added), Sweeney contacted Peking University, hoping to enroll in their prestigious CSI (Chinese Studies Institute) program. Her Chinese professors Han Li and Chia-rong Wu helped her through the process of applying for the program, and in early June Sweeney boarded a plane for an intensive and difficult study abroad opportunity.

The program involves rigorous classwork, with four 400-level classes, three of which are taught entirely in Chinese. The classes focus on culture, oral proficiency, and comprehensive one-on-ones with a professor, which allowed Sweeney to flourish at Peking University. In addition to the classes, Sweeney signed a language pledge to speak only Chinese from Monday through Friday. While challenging, Sweeney says it all paid off: “We were able to use what we learned in class in everyday life.” Sweeney and fellow Rhodes student Blaire Smith ’17, who also attended the program, were the only two students in their advanced Chinese classes.

When she wasn’t in class, Sweeney was exploring China. Peking University is located near the heart of Beijing, in the Haidian district, only a short train ride away from some of the most well-known historic sites in China. Places like the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square were in the immediate area, and the university provided the international students transportation to other sites, including an excursion to a special section of the Great Wall inaccessible to the general public. One of Sweeney’s favorite outings was to the Yitong Orphanage. She recalls, “One of the most valuable experiences was playing and learning with the orphans. We sang some American and Chinese songs, and learned the history behind our national anthems.”

In addition to the scheduled trips, Sweeney and Smith took an excursion to the city of Xi’an to see the impressive terracotta army museum and climb Mount Hua, which features some of the most precarious hiking trails in China. While the journey usually takes eight hours, Sweeney and Smith made it to the top in just five hours. Sweeney, no stranger to athletics, describes it as the hardest workout of her life. Once at the top, Sweeney and Smith camped out for the remainder of the night so they could watch the sunrise. Despite the cold, the dark, and the difficulty of the climb, Sweeney says, “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

China was something of a culture shock for Sweeney, who hails from Plano, TX—for one thing,  she missed steak and Dr. Pepper—but, she says, her background also allowed for a greater appreciation of the cultural differences and helped her to learn from them. Whether she works in national security or business, her Chinese studies will prove useful and allow her to work with a culture she loves. “I’d been studying China for three years, but just being there on the other side of the world was awesome.”

By Swaneet Mand '18