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Learning from ‘On Top of the World’

USC College summer study abroad program takes undergrads to China.

Blair Jason (left) and Annie Gillman stand in a section of the Oriental Pearl Tower. Photo courtesy of Jason and Gillman.
Blair Jason (left) and Annie Gillman stand in a section of the Oriental Pearl Tower. Photo courtesy of Jason and Gillman.

A tall, mysterious edifice looms over Shanghai. The Oriental Pearl Tower, located in the Pudong district, juts out of the landscape as if from another place and time.

USC College undergraduates Annie Gillman and Blair Jason stood at its base, awestruck.

“It looks like a silver stick that goes way up into the sky and touches the clouds,” Jason said. “There are three hot pink orbs and lights everywhere.”

Gillman, a political science major, and Jason, a double major in Chinese and business administration at USC Marshall School of Business, are in Shanghai for a study abroad course offered by the College’s East Asian Studies Center (EASC). The course is made possible through a Freeman Foundation grant. Based in Vermont, the foundation is dedicated to enhancing understanding between the United States and East Asia.


Nanjing Road, the main shopping street in Shanghai, at night. Photo credit Blair Jason.

Nearly a decade ago, the foundation awarded EASC a $2 million grant to expand undergraduate education in Asia. The foundation recently committed an additional $400,000. Called Global East Asia, the program gives undergrads across the university an opportunity to take courses in China, Japan and Korea, earning four units of upper-division credit.

“We wanted to get students earlier in their undergraduate careers to take East Asia-related courses,” said Grace Ryu, EASC associate director. “And we wanted to offer courses in the summer because during the academic year, students often don’t have time to take off for a semester and study abroad.”

Led by Brett Sheehan, associate professor of Chinese history, the four-week course in China focuses on globalization. Students study in various parts of the country and are immersed in Chinese language and culture, paying only for the course units. EASC covers the remaining cost, including airfare and lodging. Upon their return, students will present their research gathered in China at a local high school.

For Gillman and Jason, both 21-year-old seniors, standing at the foot of the Oriental Pearl Tower was the beginning of an adventure they could not have imagined.

“It’s a building, but you think, ‘How is that a building?’ ” an enthusiastic Jason said from Shanghai during a Skype interview. “It looks like a design, a huge statue. It towers over everything and is very futuristic looking.”

They explored the majestic work of art and found a treat — a glass floor.

“The floor is clear so you’re literally standing way above the ground,” Gillman said. “We felt like we were flying.”

Jason elaborated:  “You’re walking over Shanghai. And they have windows open so it’s extremely windy. You feel like you’re in some fun music video.”

But the program is not all fun and games.

“The language barrier is huge,” Gillman said. “Being here forces us to speak Chinese, which is great. My little phrase book has become my new best friend.”

She emphasized the importance of hands-on learning, especially when mastering a new language.

“There is no comparison,” Gillman said. “The words are literally alive off the page. We’re out on these field trips and all these questions pop up and we’re able to ask them.”


Led by Brett Sheehan, associate professor of Chinese history in USC College (front middle), the group visits a Qing Dynasty compound in Tianjin. Blair Jason is sitting front right and Annie Gillman is in the back, second to the left. Photo courtesy of Gillman and Jason.

The students are also seeing firsthand the effects of globalization — at times, in unexpected ways. For example, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince debuted in Shanghai, local residents arrived by the hundreds.

“See, that is globalization right there!” Jason exclaimed. “The theater was packed. They even had stores where they were selling wands and wizard hats and lightning bolts for your head. It was incredible.”

The program, however, has a balance of field learning and classroom time. For example, the students write papers comparing Shanghai with at least one inland city and rural community in China. The course teaches students the impact of globalization on China and the impact of China on globalization — two crucial issues of the 21st century.

Shanghai provides an excellent test case for students to better understand globalization. During the past 150 years, the city has been home to Western and Japanese imperialists, a refuge for holocaust survivors, and in the ’60s, a hub for youth radicalism. It is also a center of international trade and finance.

“I can’t think of one thing they should add to the program,” Jason said. “We go to other parts of China, we get to go sightseeing; we learn about the culture, the history, the language and we have free time. But it’s academic and we’re still doing our work.”

Two weeks into the course in Shanghai, Gillman and Jason still marveled about their experience at the Pearl Tower. At 1,535 feet tall, it’s roughly the height of Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the tallest building in the U.S.

“I had fun looking over Shanghai,” Jason said. “I felt as though walking on top of the world.”