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Student experience: Summer scholarship programme in China

Oisin Flynn is a final year BA in Applied Languages student at the University of Limerick. This summer, UL offered him the opportunity to travel to China for an internship for the months of July and August. Oisin talks about his experiences here:

I am so grateful to UL for making such a life-changing experience possible for me

In the middle of July an email was sent around to our course (Applied Languages), asking if anyone wanted to apply for a government scholarship programme to China for the months of July and August. I replied to the email on a whim, expecting to hear nothing back. The next day however, I received a phone-call from UL saying if I wanted to go there would more than likely be a place for me. This decision was daunting at the time as I’d never been anywhere in Asia before and heading off on such short notice scared me.

In retrospect now, I am unbelievably glad I went, and I am so grateful to UL for making such a life-changing experience possible for me. This scholarship programme was developed by An Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the IUA (Irish Universities Association) and the Chinese equivalent.

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A few of us outside the Forbidden City feat. Mao. We didn’t really know each other well yet as you can probably tell.

Off the plane we were met by Enterprise Ireland who took us to Beijing Normal University (BNU). The first thing I noticed stepping out of the car was the wave of heat that hits you. I was surprised that day to see the sky was clear blue, having heard so often before that you can’t see the sky in China because of the smog. This didn’t last however, and it wasn’t long before I was wearing a mask around after having difficulties breathing. The heat was initially quite hard to bare (35-40 everyday) but it’s surprising how fast you adjust.

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In front of Main building on BNU campus in week 1

The living situation was not what we’d be used to home in Ireland. We had to share rooms, two per room. This worked out surprisingly well and there were no major fallouts for the entire summer thankfully. Chinese students in college normally share with up to 7 other students in cramped dormitories. When we learned this, we were relieved to share with just two.

The first three weeks, we spent learning Chinese from a beginner level, except for my roommate who studies Chinese at DCU and who is still in Beijing on his year abroad. Personally, as a language student, I loved these weeks and preferred them to my internship. We only had 3 hours of classes in the morning and at the end of the 3 weeks we sat HSK level 1 (Chinese proficiency test). Learning the numbers was a lifesaver because around where we lived, English was quite rare.

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At the famous Peking Opera Beijing

In the afternoons then we had different cultural classes. We had Tai Chi lessons six times of over the course of the three weeks and none of us are any more dangerous or able to protect ourselves afterwards, but they were good fun. We were brought to see “The Legend of Kung Fu” during the third week and was an incredible display of Kung Fu.

Halfway through the program we discovered a student run travel company called CET. (Cultural exchange trips). Safe to say this discovery made the China experience for me and the others I think. This company run weekend trips to different places in China at very reasonable prices. In week 4, three of us went to Long Qi gorge which is about 3 to 4 hours outside Beijing. The gorge was spectacular, and we were lucky enough to meander through it on a longboat. The trip was cut short however, as when we were about to ascend to the top of the gorge by cable car, there was a massive landslide all down the face of half the gorge. This is not a joke we were still in the boat and further down the river when basically half the gorge decided to collapse in on itself. Still a great trip though and I’m alive to tell the tale!

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One of our company visits during first 3 weeks

The second trip we went on with CET was to inner Mongolia. This was I think the highlight of the 8 weeks for me. Inner Mongolia is a province of China that borders Mongolia. On arriving in the grasslands here we were made down a shot of Baijiu (a Chinese/Asian liquor) as a sign of good luck. It is a respected custom in the region, so I had to fight hard not to spew it back up in front of the welcome party.

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Myself, Grace (NUI Maynooth) and Finn (DCU) outside our yurts

In inner Mongolia we trekked through the grasslands on horseback and stayed in yurts. Yurts are originally Mongolian, so this was very cool. Seeing as yurt is such a common word now in Ireland and especially Limerick, I felt it was very fitting that we stayed in a yurt the night of the Liam McCarthy cup final that saw Limerick beat Galway in Dublin.

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Kubuqi desert

The next day we went trekking through the Kubuqi desert in Mongolia on a camel. We also went dirt biking and sand sliding and ziplining on Asia’s biggest zipline. All in all, this was an incredible weekend.

On my last weekend in China, two of the others and myself went camping on the Great Wall. This was an unforgettable experience. First, we had to hike up for about 2 hours through forest, then climb the wall on a rickety wooden ladder. We walked a small bit up the wall. As a group of no more than 20 people, we were the only people in sight. We watched the sunset on the wall and the sunrise. This was not the most comfortable of sleeps but the views off the wall were spectacular and now I can say I’ve slept on one of the wonders of the world.


The internships were allocated to us based loosely on what our college courses were to do with. I was placed in a publishing firm called the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press which is one of China’s largest textbook publishers. My job consisted mainly of proofreading texts before they were published. I also had to do write and “star” in 4 video lessons on Ireland and why Chinese students should study here. My supervisors told me that it isn’t that most Chinese students don’t know much about Ireland so that I should be informative as possible. So, I was essentially assigned the task of selling Ireland to Chinese students and I’m now potentially being watched by a massive number of Chinese students of English in classrooms across China which is quite strange. One of the lessons detailed the different universities in Ireland and my supervisors told me after I’d written it that there was no doubt I was a UL student as I had promoted it a little more so than other colleges. I was only giving UL credit she rightly deserves.
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A final event I’d like to mention was our closing ceremony we had at the Irish Embassy in Beijing. In this closing ceremony we met with third secretaries, the agricultural attaché and deputy ambassador who discussed their positions with us and our personal experiences. There was a formal ceremony there too but what was so nice was the Irish hospitality we received there. We all left saying how nice it was to talk with other Irish people after so long in a totally alien country and culture.

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Something I haven’t mentioned so far is the aspect of culture. China is nothing like Ireland. It is a world within itself. There are 1.3 billion people living in China and roughly 22 million in Beijing. You really notice the amount of people. There are people everywhere all the time. No road signs or any public information is in English, why would it be, except for the more touristy areas of Beijing like Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace. So, when we arrived we were met with a huge sense of culture shock. You get used to life there though.

Chinese people were friendly and always willing to help you even through hand gestures or pointing with a smile. One very strange thing that happens which not one of us got used to was, when you go into touristy areas, there’s a lot of tourists from China who have never seen “western” people before apart from on television. This results in you constantly being asked to get in pictures with people. On our first night in China we were sitting in window of a bar at night time and the amount of flashes from phones passing by was crazy. I can safely say that I never want to be famous after China.

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I loved my time in China and I can’t properly express how much this experience has changed me and benefited me. I made 7 new long lasting friends there from all over Ireland. In terms of personal development, I believe this experience made me stronger mentally and more confident in myself, I was able to adapt and live in a completely alien environment and enjoy myself while I did it. I learnt the basics in a new language and in was able to apply it in daily use there.

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In terms of career development, I believe China has helped me develop innumerable skills that will come in handy in whatever work environment I enter into in the future. And the list goes on and on. I am extremely grateful to the IUA and the CEAIE for this experience and especially grateful to UL, the gift that keeps on giving. The amount of experienced I have had thanks to this university are countless. All I did to go to China was write a very short email saying, “I would be very interested” and a few months later I’m back in final year after a unique and unforgettable summer.

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