Flinn Scholars inaugurate group study-abroad seminar in China

July 3, 2013

By hammersmith

By Matt Ellsworth
Flinn Scholars Class of 1993
Flinn Scholars Program Director 2012-2015

When I was a high-school senior, one of the most attractive benefits of the Flinn Scholarship was the funding it provided for study abroad. Frankly, this benefit also made me nervous. I had never set foot outside the United States. I had never been on an airplane. Although I spoke English coherently–as far as I knew–otherwise all I had was rudimentary Spanish. I knew about myself that I was naturally introverted and in new environments somewhat timid.

The Flinn Scholars group study-abroad seminar, a three-week experience after Scholars completed their first year of college, was designed to enhance the experience of all Scholars, but it was especially valuable for Scholars like me. It went beyond mere tourism: Scholars would engage personally with the complexity and contradictions inherent in the individuals and cultures they met. As they traveled together, the Scholars’ connections with one another would be cemented. The experience of being thrust into unfamiliar settings would infuse them with the confidence and judgment for a future of purposeful travel throughout the world. They would emerge better prepared to continue learning–during their undergraduate education and beyond–about the world and themselves.

The one drawback of the Scholars group study-abroad seminar was that when I was selected as a Flinn Scholar in 1993, the seminar didn’t exist. It wouldn’t debut until 2000.

Viszlát to Hungary, Ni hao to China

From that debut through 2012, the Scholars group study-abroad seminar was based in Budapest, Hungary, a site carefully selected for several reasons. In 2000, Hungary and its neighbors were still emerging, unevenly, from the decades-long shadow of Soviet influence, which made them fascinating laboratories for U.S. students’ firsthand study of economic and political transformation. And the Scholars Program wanted to push even the most well-traveled young Flinn Scholars to stretch and grow; the Hungarian language, which bears scant resemblance to any Indo-European languages, would ensure that outcome.

A strong partnership with the Institute for International Education helped the seminar grow into a treasured component of the Flinn Scholarship experience. But by last year, the Scholars Program and the Flinn Foundation’s board of directors determined that while Central Europe remained an excellent site for the group study-abroad seminar, we might serve the Scholars even better in a new location. At the top of the list when we began researching alternative sites, and at the top of our list when we finished, was China.

The world’s most populous nation, the world’s second-largest economy, and home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, China presented the opportunity for Scholars to grapple in-person with some of the most significant economic, political, and environmental challenges confronting the world. And we recognized that over the course of their careers, many of our Scholars would develop important relationships with intellectuals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and policymakers from China. The Scholars group study-abroad seminar could give them a head start.

Our partner in developing the new China seminar was the study Abroad Office at Arizona State University. Like similar offices at Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona, ASU Study Abroad has vast experience designing and supporting international programs for undergraduates, and important relationships with international study-abroad organizations on the ground in countries like China. One such organization, the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) became our collaborator on the Scholars seminar.

CIEE managed both the logistical details of the seminar in China and developed the academic focus for the program: sustainability and development in contemporary China. Here we are considering “sustainability” writ large, encompassing environmental, economic, and social pressures and responses at work in China today. This focus provides Scholars ample occasion to link what they learn about and confront in China with ideas, challenges, and opportunities that they learn about and confront back home. We believed that whether Scholars were majoring in music, engineering, or business, they would find the seminar enriching.


The 22 members of the Flinn Scholars Class of 2012, the participants in the inaugural Flinn Scholars group seminar in China, departed Phoenix for Beijing early in the morning on May 20. I accompanied the travelers to China but remained with them only for the program’s first week. They were hardly on their own, though: Leading the group were Elena Caprioni, the academic director of the CIEE Study Center in Beijing, and two outstanding faculty members from Arizona’s universities–Brigitta Lee, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, and David Pickus, a faculty fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU.

Dr. Caprioni, Dr. Lee, and Dr. Pickus had a seemingly impossible task: to help Scholars make sense of the field of sustainability in the context of China–in three weeks’ time. But the structure of the program helped. The group would begin with somewhat more than a week in Beijing, where site visits, lectures, and discussions would plunge the Scholars into the subjects at hand. Then the group would make one of the most radical transitions possible, trading the overflowing, overwhelming metropolis for small villages in China’s poorest province, Guizhou, in the hilly, rural southwest. There, the Scholars would have more intimate, in-depth encounters with people grappling with sustainability crises of all three kinds–environmental, economic, and social.

May 35, Sunnylands, and the Strategic Pork Reserve

The week I spent with the 2012 Flinn Scholars in Beijing confirmed my sense that the Scholars Program chose well in moving the seminar to China. The staff at CIEE’s Beijing Study Center are experienced, warm, and eager to engage, well-matched for the Flinn Scholars. The group’s time in the capitol was brief, but even in a week I saw significant progress at the individual level. Day by day, I saw Scholars grow more comfortable navigating public transit, finding supper at the night market near our hotel, joining a game of pickup basketball, planning an excursion to the Great Wall.

As the Scholars were flying to Guizhou Province for the second part of the seminar, soon to begin field research and an extended homestay in the Tunpu community of Jichang Village, news was breaking in the United States that Shuanghui International, China’s largest pork producer, had agreed to purchase Smithfield Foods, an acquisition that would represent the largest takeover ever of a U.S. firm by Chinese company.

I was home in Arizona by this time. I read the news about Smithfield and thought immediately of a lecture we had heard in Beijing that touched on China’s efforts to ensure food security, including the maintenance of a “strategic pork reserve,” a network of pork warehouses across the country designed to prevent unrest in the event of meat shortages.

In the days that followed, the news headlines varied, but it was hard to go more than a few clicks on the web without colliding with a major China-related story: the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown (sometimes referred to as May 35 to evade Chinese internet censors), the meeting of President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands summit, the flight of security contractor Edward Snowden to Hong Kong, and many more. Every one of the narratives carried greater relevance for me than before my brief visit to Beijing. For the Scholars who experienced the full seminar, I suspect that feeling was substantially magnified.

For more information:

In their own words: The Flinn Scholars study-abroad seminar in China,” Flinn Scholars News, 6/26/2013

Flinn Foundation partners with ASU Study Abroad Office,” ASU news release, 6/10/2013