By James Ashcroft
The Yenching Academy of Peking University aims to build bridges between China and the rest of the world through an interdisciplinary master’s program in China Studies. UCL History graduate James Ashcroft was among the first recipients of a fully funded scholarship to the programme. Here, he blogs about his experience at the Academy.
I still remember being asked by my then tutor Dr Vivienne Lo to forward an email to my fellow students about a new scholarship programme at Peking University. I had seen so many emails in my time at UCL that I didn’t bother to open it, so I just shared the email and left it at that. For some reason, I later on decided to open that email. I am so fortunate that I did because it quite literally changed the course of my life.
The Yenching Academy Scholarships give graduates from around the world the opportunity to experience China in a very international environment. It’s a fully funded scholarship at one of the best Chinese universities in the world. You get your flights paid for and your accommodation paid for, and you’re taken care of in the most incredible way.
Authentic Chinese experience
It’s a programme which gives you the opportunity to study alongside and make lifelong friendships with some of the brightest and most talented people you’ll ever meet. And for me anyway, it goes beyond your average study abroad programme in a way which makes it a truly authentic Chinese experience.
In my experience, the Yenching Academy Scholarships are relevant to anyone at UCL, whether or not they speak Mandarin or know much about the country. As someone who grew up with lots of friends who spoke multiple languages, it was always jarring that I could only speak English.
The Yenching Academy Scholarships didn’t seem like an obvious fit for me and I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin at the time I applied. I also didn’t know much about China or its history. This is a really important point to make as I wouldn’t want any student to miss out because they don’t see the relevance to them.
I grew so much during my time at PKU and always felt empowered to step up and contribute to the community of scholars and the university more broadly. One of my highlights was sitting on the executive organising committee for The Yenching Global Symposium, which brought together 100 or so Yenching scholars, alongside 50 graduates from PKU and 50 other students from around the world. The event has taken place every year since and it’s been extremely rewarding to see it become the success that it has.
My education at PKU was essentially a Masters in China Studies, and the qualification included elements of economics, history, international relations, law and society. I was also required to study four hours of Chinese a week, and could choose between attending classes taught in English, Mandarin or both.
My thesis analysed the Chinese government’s long-term development plan for the game of football in China in order to explore the intersection between economics, politics, and the country’s sense of place in the twenty-first century world order.
Education was only part of the picture though – as with any programme like this – and whenever I think about my time in Beijing, I think about the people I met there. I got a tremendous amount from speaking to my classmates, and we had the most incredible conversations and invigorating debates on some really important global issues.
When you’re living in another part of the world, these things can really bring you together. I’m still in touch with so many people with whom I studied – some even on a daily basis. I often meet up in person with Yenching Scholars when they come to London and I’ve visited a number of them in their home countries too.
Truly global environment
My time at Peking University has opened my eyes to working in the 21st century within a truly global environment, and I am certain that countless other students would benefit from this great opportunity.
I am always happy to speak to UCL students about my experiences as I feel very passionate about the university being represented each year in the latest cohort of Yenching Scholars. When that email comes round this year, please think carefully about opening it because it might change your life as well.