I was sitting at my desk trying to find Six Flags Great Adventure’s total park area in square footage when the “Cannot Display Webpage” message appeared on my screen as soon as I clicked a relevant link. It was almost 5:30 p.m., and I was ready to leave after eight hours of research at The China Real Estate Information Corporation (CRIC). Once again, just when I thought the link would reveal the information I needed to complete my case study Excel chart, I was stumped. While my coworkers used Baidu, a Chinese web services company, without a problem, my Chinese was not proficient enough, and I resorted to what I knew: Google. Although I certainly learned that Google is not as useful in Shanghai as it is in the states, I quickly realized that most of what I was learning this past summer did not stem directly from my actual work at The China Real Estate Information Corporation, but rather from my overall experience applying, living, and working abroad. And no, I do not think Chinese censoring and my troubles with Google are to blame. Instead, everything I gained from this summer can be attributed to one of the unique opportunities Columbia offered and my eagerness to take full advantage of it. My time in Shanghai has verified how lucky I feel to be a part of a community that has the resources to support my personal desire to have more international experiences. While we have access to these opportunities, it is truly up to us as students to move beyond our comfort zones and make the most of them.
Coming to Columbia was a choice I made not merely because it is a prestigious university—something that may initially come to mind for many—but also for the many unique opportunities I could take advantage of here. When I heard about Columbia Experience Overseas, a program offered by the Center for Career Education, I was eager to apply to work in China, as I have studied Chinese and wanted to improve. My summer in Shanghai has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Working as an intern for CRIC gave me the opportunity to experience living and working in another country on my own, an opportunity I did not think I would have so soon. I no longer felt like a student at a university but instead like an adult working for a company of my choice, in a city and country of my choice. CRIC is the leading provider of real estate information and consulting services in China, and I was an intern for the tourism department. As a tourist myself, I was living and experiencing exactly what my department was focused on.
Shanghai is expanding and changing at an incredible speed and I felt it—wherever I looked, there was something under construction. My coworkers often asked me for input on what I thought about their work, the ideas they presented to developers, and whether I could think of some successful international benchmarks they could use as examples for their clients interested in developing their land in the most profitable way. I felt that the best way to make the most of my time as an intern was not only to accomplish my set tasks but to get to know my coworkers, ask questions, and absorb as much as possible. I was surprised to discover my coworkers were in their 20s, quite close to my age. For many of them, working at CRIC was a social obligation because they were hired by a friend and felt committed to the company for the next few years, whether they liked it or not. Just as I was curious about their background and lifestyle, they were especially eager to learn about where I came from and the opportunities I had back home—they wished to travel to America but their obligations to work and school made this a dream that was quite difficult to make a reality.
So when my coworker looked at the webpage error message on my screen and smiled at me, I had not realized quite yet that I was not really stumped after all. Although I was sitting there trying to do what was a fairly simple task, the hard part was over. I had started applications for Columbia Experience Overseas in November to find out that I would be going to China in March, I was connected to a Columbia alum in Shanghai for support, and I was experiencing something new and exciting every day. I am more grateful than ever before to have had the opportunity to choose where I wanted to apply this summer, to target and articulate my skills, and after a long application and interview process to travel all the way to Shanghai, because it was something I desired and could pursue as a U.S. citizen and Columbia student. I can only hope that my fellow students feel just as lucky to have these opportunities and take advantage of them. I think back to my summer in Shanghai as one that was certainly exciting, fun, unique, and—especially important for me—exactly what I needed to improve my Chinese.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics. She is a class of 2013 CCSC representative, a member of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and a member of Columbia University Ballroom Dance Team.