The Backdoor to a Master’s Degree

I’m not a very conventional person. Part of the reason why is because it’s fun, but most of it is because I don’t know the proper way to do things. Unconventional is my life in Tsinghua.

As an exchange student from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I had no restrictions on the type of courses I could take. I only had two major regulations: I must take 12 to 18 credits. I can take no more than 8 credits outside my major. In other words, I had lots of room to be unconventional.

The first week of classes here was a nightmare.

The course registration site crashed because the servers couldn’t handle the number of students logging in at the same time. The finalized course list was only available on the course registration site. There was no English translation of the course list. Panicking, I translated the courses and the course syllabuses with my broken Chinese, picked as many journalism courses as I could and hoped for the best.

Tsinghua has a two week time period to sample classes. In those two weeks I flew through about 10 different classes and bought textbooks and completed the first week’s homework for a good half of each of those classes. After realizing it took me thirty minutes to fully comprehend one page of text in Chinese, I decided I couldn’t take courses taught in Chinese.

My finalized course list for the semester is as such: Business and Finance Reporting, Economics and Finance for Journalists, and Mass Communications and Contemporary Chinese Society, and Oral Chinese. All the courses are under Tsinghua’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications except for the Chinese class.

A lot of people ask me why I decided to study journalism in China. China is a black hole for Journalism as we understand it in the U.S: As a journalist, you’re always fighting against censorship. You face difficulties in finding information online. You never know when you’re too political. You can get kicked out of the country at any time. Your stories don’t seem relevant to 95 percent of the American population.

Despite all that, I still decided to study journalism Tsinghua University. In 2002, Tsinghua established a journalism and mass communications academy. In 2007, it started a two year master’s program in Global Journalism. The program is sponsored by big names like Bloomberg, Bank of America, the Knight Foundation and Deloitte. These names, make the institution seem open.

But, interestingly, Liu Binjie, the former minister of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication—the censorship department of the Chinese government—was Dean of School of Journalism and Communications in 2012, the same year Xi Jinping, the president of China, stepped into office. I note this because veteran China journalists, say that the control of media in China has been tightening since Xi has stepped into office. Liu is the one that is leading the ideology of Tsinghua’s school of journalism and mass communications. Is it a big deal? How are his experiences reflected in the leadership of the department here? How much does it matter? Are these the right questions I should be asking?

What happens in the high level decision I probably won’t ever know. It’s been difficult to find Professor Liu to spare a chat. But, experiencing the training that is accepted by this institution will help me better understand the media system in China. I never really put much thought into the administration and history of an institution until I came here.

Media regulation in modern China is a key part of the government. Since the foundation of the Communist Party of China (CCP), utilizing media was a big part of uniting the nation. In the 1930s, during the civil war with the Nationalist Party of China (the one with Chiang Kai-shek) the CCP was on the brink of disintegration. The Nationalists bullied the CCP into the desolate northwestern China. By then, the CCP had little weapons, little infrastructure, little money.

Media and mass communications was the only weapon they had. They were phenomenal with it. From the very beginning, high standing individuals in the CCP made decisions on how media should be made, who should make it, and what can be said to create the idealized image of China. That mindset towards the media as a weapon is still very apparent China today as we can see with heavy-handed censorship and overly positive news reports. My logic follows that tracing the media system in China still reflects the political mindset, internal conflicts and wishes of the party. And today, added onto the media system is a visible platform for the public to communicate back to the official image of China, the internet.

My classmates here too, I’m very interested in them. There are from good mix of nations: Russia, France, Slovakia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Pakistan, Italy, U.S., Korea, and China. I’d say of the 40 classmates that I’ve been able to share a conversation with, most are studying here for practical reasons, a switch in career, a boost in English language reporting, or a prestigious name to put onto their resume. I do get a vibe that they’re not satisfied with the reporting at home. They want to make a difference in the reporting back at their home.

So it is to this school, with an odd mix of Bloomberg terminals in our classrooms, and lecturers from American universities – that I as journalism student would like to learn from like, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Pennsylvania – Annenberg School for Communications – that I found a backdoor into though my exchange as a student from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Orgially posted on Study Abroad Correspondents @ International Academic Programs, University of Wisconsin Madison

China experience leads to Peace Corps assignment

Inside a bustling city in the heart of China, one step into the streets and everything seemed coated with a layer of dirt.  From the dusty high rises to the hazy cloud of polluted air, the first impression that Ben Elmakias, UW Class of 2014, had of China was undeniably bleak.  And yet, despite the problems he encountered during his study abroad experience in the northern port city of Tianjin in 2013, this summer Elmakias will return to China to begin his training as an English teacher Peace Corps Volunteer.

Photo of Ben Elmakais

UW-Alumn Ben Elmakias, ’14 English, Chinese

“It’s kind of like when you’re driving past a car accident and you inevitably slow down to stare,” he explained. “You want to know what’s going on.  You feel bad that things aren’t working so well, but you still want to understand it.  That’s my China.”

A gateway to teaching and personal growth

The first week of March 2015 is Peace Corps Week, which will be marked by several Madison events, including an informational meeting at the Red Gym and a “story slam” at Brocach Irish Pub on the Capitol Square .  (Click for more details.)

Peace Corps was on Elmakias’ mind for years before he made the decision to apply.  His interest was tied to his desire to teach others, and to his gratitude for the influential teachers in his own life who guided him through difficulties.  He said his high school English teacher and his college mentors, in particular, helped him get to a positive path of accepting himself and realizing what was important in his life.  Now he wants to emulate their good example.

His thinks his two-year role with the Peace Corps teaching English in a Chinese locale will allow him to test whether becoming an English teacher makes sense.

He also hopes that the Peace Corps will train him in how to work in a starkly different political and cultural environment.  Through Peace Corps forums and on-line materials, Elmakias learned that he should not expect to be able to change the world and will need to recognize that while in China he will be a small part of a complicated situation.

“I have an idealism of ‘I wish everyone could be happy,’” he said, adding that he knows he must also be realistic about his goals.

To future Peace Corps applicants, he recommends that, “You can certainly influence the people you’re going to be in contact with, but you have no control over how big of an influence you will have.”  In addition, applicants should join the Peace Corps “for the right reasons,” which means understanding that you will be working with people who need your skills, not heading off for two fun years free of financial obligations.

Elmakias views his upcoming experience as an opportunity for “doing something I love and enjoy” while developing a better understanding of cultural differences.  “Becoming a global citizen demands expansive sensitivity and awareness that being ‘right’ is relative to context,” he said.

You can’t ignore China

It was at the UW-Madison that Elmakias began to learn Chinese, including his study abroad summer in Tianjin, and he graduated with a major in both English and Chinese.  Some courses that shaped his lens into China were: “Contemporary Chinese Society” with Professor Sida Liu, literature classes with Professor Rania Huntington, and a Daoism class with Professor Mark Meulenbeld.  Elmakias hopes that his upcoming two years in China will fine tune his Chinese to a colloquial level and also provide insight into possible future research topics in Chinese literature.

Elmakias has also embraced the Chinese community on campus.  Last year, he set up the East Asian Cultural Exchange, a student organization that facilitates discussion with Korean, Japanese, Chinese and American students about sensitive or contemporary social topics.

“If you have no interest in China you haven’t learned enough about it,” he said. “If you read a couple articles, it’ll just suck you in.”

Orignal story published on 3/5/2014 at

The Wisconsin Idea is a Wisconsin college success story

Gov. Walker’s proposed revision of the University of Wisconsin mission statement carved out the core of the Wisconsin Idea. Yet, even after a weekend of heated brushback, recalled statements, and uncovered truths, the Wisconsin Idea remains a vague or long-winded statement about service to the state (there is a 92 page report defining the Wisconsin Idea).

For clarity’s sake, the Wisconsin Idea was the fabric of kinship between an unlikely pair of Wisconsin boys; Robert M. La Follette a fiery aspiring attorney and Charles Van Hise a pragmatic geological scientist. The two were roommates and classmates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, Van Hise immediately began his career as an instructor. He was to spend the next years of his life committed to adapting the sciences for practical use.

Fighting Bob

“Fighting Bob” Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

La Follette began his political career as a district attorney and quickly gained a seat in the U.S. Congress. The story goes that La Follette refused to take a bribe and lost his seat at congress. Bitter, he spent the next ten years across the state of Wisconsin with his fist pounding into the air and his eyes glaring with disappointment, resentment and belief in the people of Wisconsin. He demanded political reform and social justice that was trusted by logic and reasoning. Fighting Bob, he was called. He was the Progressive era.

Those ten years won Wisconsin’s trust. La Follette became governor of Wisconsin. Van Hise became president of the University. Through a twist of fate, the two roommates were reunited under their dedication to the University and Wisconsin. They moved under a united cause; to provide data and research for citizens to make informed decisions and hold the government accountable to the people. They pushed, drafted, and created room for collaboration between state officials and university experts.

One of the first iterations of the Wisconsin Idea came through a speech by La Follette in 1901. He rallied the duty of students to give back to the state that has allowed the University to grow. In 1904, Van Hise echoed similar remarks as he began the official implementation of the Wisconsin Idea into the University. He created the Extensions Network. With this structure, the Wisconsin Idea finally took a physical form.
Researchers reached out to farmers, factories, and villages to study their needs, hear their concerns and address them as fellow citizens of Wisconsin. Few laws were passed before they had been carefully studied by the university experts. This is what is meant by “the boundaries of the state are the boundaries of the university and the service to the state.”

Wisconsin became a central model for social reform in the nation. Newly established municipal research institutions, such as Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the National Bureau of Economic Research, adopted the Wisconsin model of applied empirical research for the public. This heartfelt and idealistic idea that grew from a couple of Wisconsin boys was now being implemented across the U.S.

Van Hise and Hoover

Van Hise and President Hoover Source: UW-Madison Archives

The Wisconsin Idea is Wisconsin’s college success story that shook the nation. According to a professor at UW-Madison, instructors at the University are familiar with this success story. For many, the Wisconsin Idea is reason they chose Wisconsin over any other higher paying, prestigious schools across the U.S. Only with story and context can the essence of the Wisconsin Idea be captured.