Mara Hvisendahl '02
My senior year I attended an alumni networking event and sat at a table with a producer from a major news organization. The man gave me and a few other aspiring journalists advice on how to take advantage of our time at Swarthmore. "Study the classics," he said. "Take philosophy courses. Don't waste your time studying foreign languages. You can take care of that later."
I had by that point spent most of my education in the Modern Languages and Literature department, and I was hardly capable of changing course. But I worried that other students would follow his advice. There is, of course, a high priority on the intellectual content of courses at Swarthmore, and as students debate which educational paths to pursue, the idea that foreign language classes are less intellectual is occasionally floated.
The assumptions behind this are that it doesn't matter how a language is taught - that taking a Chinese class at Swarthmore is no different from taking a Chinese class at, say, a community center - and that language exists independent of culture, history, film, and literature. During my time at Swarthmore, I discovered that the opposite is true: to master a language, particularly a language as demanding as Chinese, being surrounded by a group of hard-working and intelligent students and professors is absolutely critical. To any first-year student of Chinese, it quickly becomes apparent that the Swarthmore program is not just about memorizing characters and grammatical structures; the professors in the department are accomplished scholars with extensive knowledge of Chinese film and literature. As a comparative literature major, I read a lot of English and Spanish novels, but some of my more rewarding encounters with literature came during my senior year while reading and discussing Chinese short stories in Kong Laoshi's fourth-year class with students who by that point were good friends.
I am not particularly enamored with the practical - in fact, I usually try to avoid it - but after graduation I came to realize that Chinese also had immense real-world value. I moved to New York to attend journalism school at Columbia, and after graduating from the master's program I settled down in the city to freelance for local papers and magazines. I quickly discovered that trying to freelance in New York is like trying to party in a small Midwestern town on a Tuesday night: it doesn't happen unless you know the right people, and even then it's not a lot of fun. After an editor and a few other journalists suggested that I was basically stupid for not moving to China, I packed up my bags and flew to Shanghai. I have been here since December, and so far I have been very happy - and mildly successful - here. And every day I am grateful for the time I spent studying Chinese at Swarthmore.