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Studying Chinese, and Eating Scorpion, in Beijing

Studying Chinese, and Eating Scorpion, in Beijing
Valery Camarena ’11 (left) with her Peking University roommate, Stephanie, exploring a section of China’s Great Wall.

While designing her major in Cultural Anthropology, Valery Camarena ’11 decided to make fulfilling a personal dream a requirement for receiving her degree.

“Studying abroad is something I had wanted to do since I began college,” said Camarena. So the sophomore figured that making it a requirement for graduation would be the perfect motivator. She was correct: after her proposal for a Cultural Anthropology major was approved in fall 2008, Camarena wasted no time in completing the study abroad requirement, spending last semester studying at Peking University’s School of Chinese as a Second Language.

But for Camarena, a student in TCNJ’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Program, making this personal goal a reality took a bit of hard work. She said the cost of studying in China seemed at first to be too much to overcome. “But I had such an overwhelming desire to study abroad, I decided I couldn’t just give up on the idea.” And so after months of saving money from her job as a desk assistant in Norsworthy Hall—and with the aid of scholarships from the EOF Promise Award, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, and the Freeman Awards for Study in Asia—Camarena was on her way.

At Peking University, Camarena took part in an intensive language program studying Mandarin Chinese. “My coursework included classes in spoken Chinese, readings in Chinese, pronunciation, and writing Chinese characters,” she said. With the exception of a course she took in modern history, all of the classes were taught in Chinese.

Camarena started learning the language in high school, she said, where she also took classes in Japanese and Spanish. “I was always fascinated with languages and the differences and similarities between different groups of people,” Camarena said. “I am interested in many different aspects of culture, including how groups relate to each other, how they change over time, and how culture affects our perceptions.”

These interests prompted her to enroll in TCNJ’s International Studies Program, but she found that classes focused on government and policy, and not as much on society and people. After changing her major to sociology, Camarena took the class Ethnicity, Race, and Nation. It was then she realized, “Cultural Anthropology was the right major for me.” Camarena self designed TCNJ’s first Cultural Anthropology major, which requires her to take 13 classes and eventually write a senior thesis. And of course, there is the study-abroad requirement, which is an experience Camarena recommends every student take part in.

camarena 2“Studying abroad was such a life-changing experience,” Camarena said. “China is quite an interesting place. I saw how fast the country is changing and developing, but at the same time, how so much of the old is still holding fast. For instance, you might see an ancient temple right across the street from a new skyscraper.”

Studying in China also opened her eyes to how vast the world really is, she said. “Especially coming to the East, you get a sense of how people on the other side of the globe live, while learning more about yourself in the process,” said Camarena. “It wasn’t until I left the United States that I realized how special a nation it really is.”

“Living in Beijing was wonderful because I was able to meet people from all over this huge country and was right in the midst of everything,” she continued. “And did I mention the food there is absolutely amazing? If you ever visit China, be sure to try the scorpion at Wangfujie. It’s not too bad.”

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