John Olbrich: My time at Tsinghua

What is it that makes our university, Tsinghua, so different from other universities in China – or from universities overseas, for that matter? I’ve spent the majority of my working life in universities in England as a manager or teacher, including seven years at Tsinghua in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures [now the Language Centre of Tsinghua University], and Tsinghua stands out. Why?

Tsinghua is exceptional in promoting care of its students, in my opinion, for its “get up and go” mentality, for its welcoming atmosphere and for the dynamism which clearly pervades every aspect of life here. Tsinghua has changed greatly since I came here in 2013 – in those days many of the road signs were not in English, WeChat was hardly used except for person-to-person communication, and the wealth of events for newcomers to the university to help us integrate better, did not exist. These days there are several WeChat groups for scholars and students and the campus is far more navigable, and more open and friendly to international scholars and students.

One of the chief joys of working at Tsinghua, as any teacher will tell you, is the intellectual curiosity and brilliant minds of the students. The counselling function and links with students outside the classroom are far greater in China, especially at Tsinghua, than is the custom at Western universities. I have been surprised and delighted to develop friendships and a mentoring function for some (too few) of my former students.

I have continued to see many students after their first year here (I taught English writing to freshman English majors, which allowed me to introduce a wide range of English books), and it has been inspiring to see 18 and 19-year olds develop into young men and women, travelling outside China and building their intellectual lives. I have been invited to the hometown of some of my students; enjoyed their musical and Chinese opera performances and visited some of my former students on their trips abroad, for example at Oxford. It has been special privilege to know student Chen Qiyu, who is now studying at the United States. I have watched her intellectual and linguistic development throughout her time at Tsinghua.

Working in Tsinghua, of course, is not the same as knowing China, and we are all aware of that Tsinghua is a very privileged intellectual and social “bubble”. Tsinghua does provide a home for the elite students of China and it is an enormous privilege to be able to share in their development.

Writer: John Olbrich
Editors: Guo Lili, Natalie Meyer
Photo designer: Liu Zeyu


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