I remember walking through the red gates of the Yeung Kin Man Academic Building in the summer of 2013 as a freshman, seeing for the first-time the vibrant campus of CityU; and although it was not a huge campus, it was nevertheless filled with laughter and energy. Throughout the semester, I saw students spend hours shouting election campaign slogans for their student clubs. I also witnessed students sacrifice their free time to create posters and banners to raise awareness for social issues. Their enthusiasm and spirit motivated me to devote my own time and energy to more than just my studies. In October of that same year, I became the Recreation Secretary for the undergraduate branch of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group serving the mainland Chinese undergraduate students at CityU. As such, throughout my freshman year—apart from going to classes and completing course assignments—I got to work with other students, as well as organize various events and activities that supported the non-local undergraduate population. Looking back now, I am glad I took that step and challenged myself.
Towards the end of my freshman year, I heard about the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program between CityU and Columbia University for the first time. As a student from mainland China, I had just become used to the daily pace of Hong Kong and adapted to my new life at CityU. Even though I was thrilled by the opportunity to continue my education at an Ivy League school, I did not know if I was quite ready for another big life change. There was so much uncertainty both personally and professionally. On one hand, I was unsure of myself. Was I good enough to be admitted into the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program? Even if I was, would I do well at a competitive university such as Columbia? On the other hand, how would the Program work exactly? Was it worth me giving up the life I just settled into in Hong Kong and the friends I had made? Since the Program only had two previous cohorts at the time, there were not many resources I could turn to for answers. In the end, I told myself, “you might not get all the answers you want, so why not just go ahead and give it a try?” That was when I decided to stop second-guessing myself and find out.
New and Different
I was extremely grateful to be selected for the Program and was thrilled to be able to start this new journey during my junior year. Everything was new and different to me: the subway; the language, with all the unfamiliar slang; even my major in economics. After dedicating my sophomore year at CityU to my major, I was expecting a lot of models, theories, and numbers from my major classes at Columbia, but I was wrong. During the game theory class, we were introduced to a world in which one of the fundamental assumptions in economics regarding individual rationality was challenged. Not only that, but we were shown that even psychology and sociology plays a part. I also took a class that presented a historical and almost philosophical view on the development of economic theories. It was refreshing to be presented with new and different perspectives on economics that were not just models, theories, and numbers. At Columbia, I was constantly exposed to interesting and original thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. They motivated me to learn more and think more, because there is always something I don’t know.
Another experience at Columbia that I cannot stop talking about is the Core Curriculum. It requires undergraduate students to study a wide range of subjects, such as music, art, and literature, regardless of which major they are taking or what school they are from. These new classes really opened my eyes to things I hadn’t been exposed to before. For example, my Music Humanity class took students to the Metropolitan Opera and taught us how to understand the construction of a timeless opera; the Art Humanity class encouraged us to analyse the sculptures on campus in relation to the dynamic surroundings; and the Global Humanity class intrigued me with stories and anecdotes throughout the historical development of Buddhism. Every class excited me, filled me with knowledge in unfamiliar areas, and inspired me to continue exploring my interest in these fields further. Even after the semester was over, I continued going to major art museums and the Metropolitan Opera, trying to catch a show or exhibition whenever I could. Sometimes I consider myself an art history student, a music theory student, or even a philosophy student; but really, I have become someone who has a wide range of interests and will always remain curious to learn.
Different but Still Connected
My Art Humanity class was a small class made up of 15 students, all with very diverse and interesting backgrounds. Sarah, a film student, had been studying Chinese culture and Mandarin for over 10 years when I met her. Richard, a sophomore, was actually the owner of a successful diamond business. A few years ago, inspired by a disabled group that he was mentoring, he decided to take a step back from the business to continue his undergraduate education. In class, we would often have in-depth and meaningful conversations on not only what we saw visually, but also about our thoughts, emotions, and the feelings that were provoked through art. I might not have always initially understood or agreed with another student’s interpretation of a painting, but I learned to be respectful and listen. Every class, through the thoughts and stories of the other students, I felt like I got to know them better. Despite the differences in our ages, cultures, and beliefs, we were all able to understand and connect with each other.
This continued outside of class too, and many of the friendship I made have lasted ever since. One of those friends, called Brit, was one of the smartest girls in the class, and she would always express her opinions unapologetically. We started talking after class one time because she liked a point that I made during a discussion. I also thought her perspective was rather unique. After that, we would meet up regularly for coffee and to catch up with each other. Just as in the art class, she always had unique ideas and perspectives that inspired me. I once told her that I felt there was so much social pressure on females in Asia to fit a certain image: tall, slim, soft-spoken. Surprisingly, she could sympathize. As a tall, strong girl with super curly hair growing up in a small town in New Jersey—who at one point had returned home to Israel to serve in the military—she constantly felt uneasy about not fitting the conventional female image. She encouraged me to take action and make a difference. So, we decided to take part in the 2018 Women’s March, to celebrate the collective courage and determination of women around the world, in the face of difficulties and challenges. Since then, I have continued to be involved in female empowerment movements, hoping that my actions will contribute to a larger change.
“Remember, Columbia is not easy!”
While my time at Columbia was full of excitement, it was not a fairy tale. On the very first day of orientation, new students were reminded over and over again that Columbia is not an easy place to study. For me, this was definitely true. I was often overwhelmed by the stress of multiple assignment deadlines, the pressure of seeing my peers secure good job offers, and just the perpetual restlessness of New York City. However, I knew this was just another lesson I had to learn, about how to deal with my own emotions and mental well-being. My first step, which was also the most difficult, was to acknowledge my feelings and openly talk about them. There were times when I had to leave the study group in the middle of a session and go home because I could not handle the stress and anxiety. Some nights, I would call my friend and just say: “I’m not doing well. Can I talk to you for a second?” Whatever it was, I would try and find ways to make myself feel better. For example, I love working out—yoga, running, Zumba, weight training, etc. The physical intensity clears my mind and helps me focus on what is in front of me. In the end, I am responsible for my own feelings and mental health, so I knew I had to fix it myself if something was not right.
My Journey Continues…
Since then, I have graduated from the Program and started my career as an internal auditor at Internationale Nederlanden Group. I take pride in my work, as we provide independent, value-adding assurance and advice on the company’s operational practices. In the long term, I envision advancing my career in the field of risk management, helping businesses navigate the increasingly dynamic and complex global market. I firmly believe that my experiences in the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program have laid a strong foundation for my career. Living in Hong Kong, and subsequently New York, has taught me to be flexible and adaptable to new environments, which has helped me to become a good team player who can fit in quickly. Furthermore, communication—both verbal and written—is the centre of my everyday work. Whenever I walk into a meeting or speak with a client, I always remind myself of how we used to talk to each other back in the art class. It is important to express your own opinions clearly, but it is more important to listen and keep an open mind to better understand each other. This mentality has helped me effectively communicate with my team, my manager, and my stakeholders. As important as technical knowledge is, I realize that the soft skills and competency I developed through my undergraduate experiences are what will take me far in my journey.
Did I end up finding answers to the questions I originally had about the Program? Yes, I did. It was the best decision I ever made. From mainland China, to Hong Kong, and then New York, I have learned to be more confident in myself and the path I choose. Now, I encourage you to do it too. Despite the doubts and uncertainty you may have, a unique journey with endless possibilities awaits you.