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Exchange program offers student unique break experience

By Kathleen McWilliams
On January 23, 2014

While most students headed home for the Winter break, looking forward to the comfort of home cooking and a shower without flip flops, 5th-semester chinese and economics student Erin DeMay, was wrapping up her semester abroad in Shanghai, China.
Unlike most UConn students who opt to go abroad, DeMay did not choose to go with a university coordinated program, but applied as an exchange student to Fudan University.
"The UConn programs didn't relate to what I was looking for; the summer programs seemed good but I knew I wanted to go abroad in the fall, and the other programs were made for majors different from my own," DeMay said.
Because none of the UConn programs aligned with her major or her goals for study abroad, DeMay took the leap and applied to Fudan University for the fall semester. For DeMay this meant that she would travel to China alone without the support of other UConn students and arrive in a country where she barely knew the language.
"Luckily I have a friend who lives and works in Shanghai who was able to pick me up and drive me to campus, but the drive was still really intimidating. We passed so many huge apartment buildings and industrial areas and all I could think to myself was 'What did I get myself in to?' The first few days were tough," DeMay said. "Especially since I had to acquaint myself with a foreign city and culture largely by myself while making sure I had everything set up for living at Fudan, from enrollment to paying for housing."
Despite the challenges in travelling alone to a foreign part of the world, DeMay said she met other exchange students who were in the same position as she was and they created a safety net for each other.
"The good thing is that I met a lot of international students on the first day who were in the same boat as me, so we helped each other figure out those processes. A lot of students came not knowing anyone else so it was easy to connect with others and make friends," DeMay said.
While in Shanghai DeMay took classes in English that she could pass for UConn credit and practiced her Chinese in her daily interactions throughout the city.
"The main reason why I used Chinese was to buy food. A lot of the restaurants had picture menus so it would be easy to pick something out, but when they only had a Chinese menu I was out of luck," DeMay said. "I could recognize characters for a few foods like rice, noodles, beef and chicken so I would find those dishes, pick one at random, and hope I liked it."
Aside from studying and practicing Chinese DeMay travelled the country in her free time experience everything from a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central China to tropical islands in the South.
"About a month into the semester a classmate and I decided to join a friend I didn't know very well on a trip he was going on that weekend to Jiuzhaigou, in the Sichuan province," DeMay said. "Jiuzhaigou is a nature reserve that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve; the park is most well-known for having bright blue lakes with water so clear you can see straight to the bottom."
On top of experiencing the natural beauty of China, DeMay travelled to Beijing and Hainan, a tropical island off the South East coast of China.
When DeMay wasn't travelling away from Shanghai, she would spend the weekends exploring the city with friends.
"During the weekends I would usually daytrip around Shanghai with a group of friends; it was so easy to hop on the metro and be at a range of museums, temples, markets or landmarks," DeMay said.
Living in Shanghai alone, however, posed several challenges to DeMay, who had previously only travelled in Europe and the Caribbean, in the form of cultural adjustment.
"Adjusting to China was an interesting experience since I had never been to such a foreign culture. Before this I had only been to Italy and Aruba with either classmates or my family, and both places are very easy to live in since the cultures are pretty similar," DeMay said. "In China I usually had to deal with being the only foreigner around, which typically meant I would get stared at because I look different. At first it was slightly alarming to look around and realize five different people were giving you strange looks but I got used to it after a short while."
Other challenges included the sheer size of the 45,000 student university and how passengers on public transportation push others around for seats.
Despite the challenges DeMay encourages UConn students to take the leap and leave their comfort zone during study abroad.
"I think a lot of the benefits from going alone appear when you interact with other people. Since I went to a foreign country by myself with little knowledge of the language I had to step out of my comfort zone to ask people how to do things or for directions to different places," DeMay said. "I also got really comfortable with starting up conversations with complete strangers; it's really important to make connections as early as possible so that you can have a network of friends in a foreign place."
DeMay believes that her experience not only forced her out of her comfort zone, but also allowed her to experience a culture more fully and gain a better understanding of it.

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