All FSI News Blog May 4, 2021

How SPICE’s China Scholars Program Accelerated My Love for International Relations

The following reflection is a guest post written by Santiago Calderon, an alumnus of the China Scholars Program, which is currently accepting applications for the Fall 2021 course.
Santiago Calderon at Harvard University for debate tournament
Santiago Calderon at Harvard University for debate tournament; photo courtesy Santiago Calderon

¿Para qué son estas cajas?  As my grandma and I stuffed Home Depot boxes full of food and hygiene products, I thought of this question (“What are these boxes for?”) and drew the connection to the catastrophic news stories playing in the background of the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela. Ever since I was young, I would have seemingly endless conversations with family members over what I would see on TV. I was really scared for my family suffering the brunt of the crisis.

So how does this relate to the China Scholars Program (CSP)? The Venezuelan crisis being my catalyst, I was propelled to research international relations and policy to understand the internal political systems that were failing the Venezuelan people. At the same time, I joined my school’s debate team, where China became a major focus in many of my topics, ranging from whether the European Union should join the Belt and Road Initiative to if the United States should join the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to limit Chinese military posturing in the South China Sea. 

When applying, I believed the CSP would deepen my prior understanding and create new areas of interest in the study of China. I was most definitely right. I knew the program was going to be a challenge, yet with each reading, lecture, and discussion, I would find myself hungry for more. The diversity of talent SPICE brought together was quite enlightening, and the structure of the program encouraged the diffusion of complex ideas, ranging from “urban and rural inequality” to “technology and social control,” across all of its students in an inclusive and entertaining environment that extended beyond the individual Zoom sessions. Something the CSP offered, unparalleled to any high school experience I have had, is access to professors on a biweekly basis to answer my pressing questions about their lectures or other readings I went through; this particularly helped me grasp unfamiliar concepts and confirm any prior knowledge I had in certain subject areas. 

One of my favorite experiences in the program by far was learning about the Chinese American experience, especially since our discussion took place right as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in intensity. This discussion in particular helped me understand my Chinese American peers, along with the experiences of discrimination they have experienced as well as their ancestors—something difficult to intellectually grasp without the program’s unique instruction. 

Finally, the program’s flexibility is shown in its culmination, as students are given the opportunity to write a research paper regarding any Chinese social, political, or economic issue. I chose to write about the political and economic implications of Chinese telecommunications investments in Sub-Saharan Africa, through which I practiced all the skills of analysis I learned through the program. I was especially pleased when we could collaboratively share our work on a website and give presentations to share our findings with others.

Ultimately, the CSP has furthered my interest in international relations, motivating me to pursue Chinese studies in college and hopefully visit the country one day. The CSP has completely changed my perspective on evaluating the key drivers for China’s domestic and international policymaking. It is an invaluable experience that interested students should 100 percent take advantage of.