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McFetridge Pursues Master’s At Top Chinese University

What’s it like to take graduate courses at the “Harvard” of China?

Just ask Matt McFetridge ’12, who is settling into his second month of graduate studies in the international relations program at Tsinghua University (pronounced “Ching-wah”) in Beijing, China.

“I’m studying with some of the foremost scholars on U.S.-China relations,” said the Penn Yan native in a recent email interview.

McFetridge on a recent trip with classmates at Tsinghua University to the Great Wall of China.

In 2010, McFetridge spent the fall semester as an exchange student at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (YUFE) in Kunming, one of Keuka’s partner universities.

That experience set him on a new course:  to incorporate connections to China into his political science and history degree, and future career. Exposure to the Chinese language and the city that serves as hub of China’s foreign relations could give him an edge if he pursues a doctoral program in history or works as an analyst, perhaps with the government or a think tank.

“I love the program, I love the school, and the intellectual community here is equally impressive,” he wrote. “It’s such a difference between Keuka where I was one of 1,000. Here, I am one of 31 in my cohort surrounded by 30,000 of the best minds from China and abroad.”

That statement is a reference to the 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students living and studying on the Tsinghua campus. In China, students don’t apply for direct admission to a university; instead, the school chooses students based on results of a yearly exam known as the Gaokoa, which tests them on a range of subjects, slightly different than those on the American SAT, McFetridge said. While he can’t be certain of the source, McFetridge said he heard a statistic that the brightest 80 percent of China’s undergraduate students study at Tsinghua.

But McFetridge is in a graduate program, and he’s already found there’s a lot more reading – 300-500 pages a week – than the 30-50 pages he might have had at Keuka. Another big difference is the keen interest every student in a given class has in the subject matter.

“Many undergraduate classes have a mix of students who want to be there or students who are taking a specific class to fill requirements. Here, it’s great to have students from all over the world giving their opinions and impressions about international topics, such as the very contentious issue surrounding the Diaoyu Islands and who really owns them,” he said.

According to McFetride, he is “one of seven Americans in my program. There are kids from Turkey, Germany, France, England, Spain, Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Greece, Holland, Canada, Pakistan, Ireland, Philippines, Eritrea, Mexico…  ”

According to McFetridge, there seems to be moderate consensus that students from other countries wanted to “get out of their Western lifestyles and go do something that seems a little less orthodox. Others say that they want the Chinese side of it all–that they’ve had a chance to learn in a Western university but wanted to have an edge and see things from the way the Chinese do.”

And that is precisely what McFetride has done in his Chinese foreign policy class this fall, although he’s discovering surprising parallels with the knowledge base he built at Keuka. McFetridge completed an independent study under Associate Professor of History Chris Leahy in fall 2011, writing a thesis paper on China’s impressions of U.S. foreign policy during 18 years of the Cold War. Now in Tsinghua, four of the books incorporated in his Keuka study are required reading for his current class.

“The first day of classes, when the professor talked about one particular book, he asked if anyone knew the book or the Cornell historian who wrote it. I raised my hand and knew both and I was the only who had read it,” McFetridge said. “My master’s class here is an awesome extension of what my thesis was for Professor Leahy. Now, it’s going to be great to have an in-depth look into how China works with the rest of the international community.”

McFetridge on a trip to the Yanqing Longqing Gorge, about two hours outside of Beijing.

McFetridge has discovered other interesting parallels, too. One of his professors, Dr. Sun Zhe, was present at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and after seeing what happened, chose to study at Columbia University. First published at age 25, Dr. Sun Zhe recently edited a work titled Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, for the chair of Tsinghua’s Department of International Relations. The book, said McFetridge, discusses the fundamental Chinese philosophy still intertwined with all Chinese foreign policy, and was reviewed by Henry Kissinger.

Sun Zhe’s connections to American political icons include former Presidents Carter and both Bushes, who invited him to stay at family homes in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Crawford, Texas. McFetridge hopes Sun Zhe will become his faculty adviser.

“He has great stories to tell – that’s for sure. Some American politicians gave him the nickname ‘Sunny.’ He’s a pretty funny, but incredibly intelligent man,” McFetridge said.

Aside from all his studies, he is also taking time to experience the country and already made a visit to the Mu Tian Yu portion of the Great Wall of China. According to McFetridge, he and roughly 44 other students from Tsinghua climbed a steep set of stairs for about 45 minutes in order to reach the actual Wall above. Other informal faculty-student outings are also in the works, he said.

Even though it’s still early in the program, “already I am in love with the way grad school works,” McFetridge said. “So far, we have only started to dive in.”

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