|Andrea Stith is currently a research fellow in the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. Her work at SJTU is a continuation of her work as a German Chancellor Fellow at Humboldt University Berlin and Ludwig Maximillians University in Munich. Prior to her fellowship, Stith was a program officer in the office of grants and special programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a science policy analyst at FASEB and a AAAS/NSF Science and Technology Policy Fellow. She received her doctorate in biophysics from the University of Virginia in 2001 and her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Delaware in 1995.
I am the only foreigner and native English speaker in my department and the first foreigner hired as an employee of my university. I also am one of 100,000+ expatriates living in Shanghai, a city of 16 million. And, I am still amazed, despite my many experiences in expansive and intimidating crowds, that I am living and working in a country with more than one billion people. Living in China as an African-American, scientist and teacher has its surprises, trials, adventures and delights. Most importantly, it also has a purpose.
One of the reasons I sought this opportunity is that I want to lead a life that is challenging and full of new experiences. I also want to add to my career in a way that is meaningful, unique and advantageous. I hope that my experiences and the knowledge I glean from my immersion in China will allow me to gain a nuanced understanding of the country and its academic, political and value systems, as well as its perspectives on global issues in education, science and technology.
Making a Change
Accepting a position as a research fellow in the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University seemed like a necessary and natural next step when I made it. After having left the career path of a laboratory scientist, I’ve found a new path that suited me quite well. Positive experiences and the consideration of my true ambitions, interests and desires allowed me to shift my priorities and made a stint in China seem like a golden opportunity.
Before moving to China, I had been in Washington, D.C., doing policy for just over eight years: Right after receiving my doctorate in biophysics from the University of Virginia, I received a fellowship through the American Association for Advancement in Science Science and Technology Policy program and spent a year at the National Science Foundation. I then continued my work in policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Association for Women in Science.
While I’ve always loved traveling, my work never included a true international component. Domestic policy, specifically focused on graduate and postdoctoral education, was my area of focus and growing professional interest. As I learned more about the impact of foreign talent on U.S. research, I wanted to see whether I could combine these interests.
With the encouragement of friends and colleagues, I applied for, and ultimately received, a German Chancellor Fellowship with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The program’s support structure, which includes language lessons, visa assistance and travel funds, made the fellowship quite appealing. On the other hand, after leaving bench science, I had built a solid career foundation and was unsure about accepting a temporary post.
Life “On the Road”
What do Germany and China have in Common?
Both Germany and China have, in recent years, launched major national higher education and research initiatives that focus both on science infrastructure development and science and technology human resource (HRST) development. How these HRST initiatives are designed to overcome systemic and situational handicaps and boost national competitiveness is what intrigues me. Furthermore, my instincts to come to China originated when I noticed serious efforts to build Sino-German partnerships. It was clear that Germany, a strong science nation with robust aspirations, sees much advantage in strong partnerships with China. Now that I am in China, the evidence of international collaboration— including with Germany— is impossible to miss.
Despite my apprehensions, I took the leap. I left my post, renewed my passport, packed my bags and hopped on a plane to Bonn, Germany. Once there, I enjoyed my new international colleagues and relished the opportunities to learn about the many facets of German life, culture and history by traveling on my own or as part of a formal group.
Professionally, I always had been involved with science and education policy. In Germany, I was able to learn how the Germans orchestrate their science system, but I also had free reign to explore issues more broadly related to science and technology and education policy. In China, I focus my energies on the Chinese postdoctoral system. This system is interesting to learn about and try to characterize given its short 25-year history in a country that is developing so rapidly and forcefully.
In China, I try to be conscientious about building on my experience in Germany. I came here on my own initiative, seeking additional experiences in a nation that is on the rise, is in the news and is largely unfamiliar to me. In Germany, many professionals emphasized how culture impacts education— something I previously was not sensitive to. I am seeing this again in China as the nation works to build a globally competitive and integrated system “with Chinese characteristics.”
More so than when at home in the U.S., I find that how I choose to spend my personal time impacts my professional well-being. I knew from my time in Germany that an important element of a life abroad is learning the language. Despite being “wise” to this, my initial attempts to learn Mandarin were casual, somewhat haphazard and, as a result, inadequate. Formal schooling, while time-consuming and difficult to fit into my daily life, has improved my speaking skills and my quality of life drastically. The most significant impact has been on my relationship with my colleagues. Although I still work exclusively in English, being able to understand even a little of the conversation in more social work settings has helped me feel more integrated and at ease. Moreover, my colleagues are interested in my progress. Often, after asking how I am doing, they inquire about my Chinese!
Guanxì, or relationships and networks, is an important aspect of Chinese life. I have benefited from it in so many ways. In my work environment, I often can’t manage the smallest tasks without it. Even when presented with a problem in my personal life, a solution almost always begins with a phone call to a work friend.
As my personal and professional network expands beyond the workplace, I am amazed by the diversity of people with whom I have common interests. Especially amongst the community of expatriates, I find that fostering new relationships is a way of life. This network is valuable to me here in China, and I expect that a number of these relationships will continue to hold value as I move on in life and work.
In some ways, I wish I could be writing this article a couple of years from now— speaking with assurance about how my international escapades have impacted me. Currently, I am in the middle of this journey, immersed in an experience that I know will shape my life and career.
I am open to the opportunities that lie ahead. However, after my return to the United States in the next year, I will remain committed to the international element of my work. It is the skills, knowledge and perspectives that I have gained from my years abroad that I want to build upon in my future.