When I set off from London on my way to the 2013 Student Forum in Beijing I didn’t know what to expect. I had a Chinese visa in my passport and a few pages of information about the itinerary of the week; it all seemed very formal and businesslike, and I wasn’t sure I even owned the right clothing for this type of event! Nonetheless, I left the UK with an open mind, hoping I’d meet some like-minded students, and by the time we left the airport in Beijing, all eight of the British students had begun to get along. Despite the jetlag, we managed to have a wonderful afternoon sightseeing in Beijing with Rob and Adon, who were determined to keep us awake! Looking out over the Forbidden City, through the smog, I felt very intrigued by Beijing and all it’s intricacies, and really wanted to learn more about the city. Our evening meal with Jazreel was the first taste of genuine Chinese food I had ever had, and gave me a wonderful first impression of delicious Chinese cuisine. Jazreel welcomed us warmly to Beijing and made me feel very comfortable; any lingering anxiety was replaced by my excitement about meeting the Chinese students and working together with the group for the rest of the week.
The Student Forum was really successful in putting British and Chinese students in dialogue with one another. The eight students from each country came together in a situation that facilitated discussion and exchange, while enabling a strong friendship to build in the group as a whole. A scavenger hunt in the Hutongs of Beijing on our first day together got us working in our teams and helped us get to know one another. I feel I learnt a lot about China and Chinese culture that morning, constantly asking questions of my peers and answering their questions in turn. That evening, after working on our presentations, the whole group went to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag being lowered. The crowds of Chinese people there astounded me. Only then did I realise the vast size of China; scores of Chinese tourists from all over the country must come to Beijing everyday to see this spectacle. Eating Jajang noodles together in a small restaurant and walking around the area, the group was very amiable and curious to get to know one another. Opportunities for sightseeing and socialising with our Chinese counterparts throughout the week, accumulating in a trip to the Great Wall, was one of the most important things about the experience. I came away from the week with a strong relationship with a large and diverse group of students. Not only did we build academic and diplomatic relationships, we all became very good friends before the week was out.
The Student Forum itself was held at Peking University on Tuesday 7th May, our seconds day in Beijing. In three groups, we presented our ideas about International education; the use of technology in education; and the future of education. This encouraged discussion and exchange of ideas across two vastly different cultures. Every group member had a different experience of education. However it was surprising how similar our thoughts were on the difficulties facing students wanting to pursue international education. We came up with various innovative ways of solving the problems we put forward, which I hope will help the British Council’s work in international education. For example, one of the major challenges to a student hoping to study overseas is a lack of financial support. In the UK, student loans often do not cover a year abroad, and in China, students must rely on their parents to pay the high international fees. We suggested that university institutions could provide information to students about alternative funding opportunities, such as corporate sponsorship or support from educational charities. This might encourage a greater number of students to undertake international study, a valuable part of education. Our education has a big influence over our future, and I believe a global outlook and international perspective is one of the greatest skills a graduate can possess.
On day three, we met a Chinese economist and two British entrepreneurs who have established businesses in Beijing. I got a greater insight into the economic climate of Beijing and a sense of what it would be like to start a business there. For me, the highlight of the fourth day was the evening reception, where I met British people living and working in Beijing, and Chinese people who have studied or worked in the UK in the past. I spoke about my experiences, impressions and highlights of the week. This event allowed us to reflect on the benefits of our experiences and to network with and gain contacts among those people present. Over these two days I gained a greater confidence in my future. Though the future is increasingly uncertain and job prospects are unsure, I gained the confidence to rely on the unexpected opportunities life presents. The British Council say that, “to keep the UK competitive our brightest and best people need to leave the country.” My week in Beijing with the British Council has confirmed my desire to live, study and work overseas in future.