Alumni | Dickson David Agbaji: From Yenching Academy to the World Stage

The cold breeze of the winter night in Beijing blows across his cheeks, and a big smile is on the corner of his mouth. He heard roaring cheers from the crowd in the distance, and eye-catching lights flickered before him. In an instant, countless fireworks bloomed in the sky, and the sound was like thunder. Standing on the stage at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony, Dickson David Agbaji said to himself: “At this moment, the whole world is watching us.”

Accompanied by the song “Let the World Be Filled with Love”, Dickson walked across the stage – of slowly unfolding pictures – with several other young people from different countries. He and his companions had been training for that moment for months, and the feeling was overwhelming.

In August 2019, Dickson from Nigeria officially joined the fifth cohort of Yenching Academy of Peking University. As a member of Peking University student volunteers, performing at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics was one of the highlights of Dickson’s trip to China, which started at Yenching Academy.

Finding Another Home at Yenching Academy

Before coming to Beijing, Dickson studied Political Science at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. In one class, he read about China’s rapid development on the world stage in recent years, and China’s assistance to other countries under the framework of “South-South Cooperation” ignited his interest in this distant country. Through reading and researching, his interest is getting deeper and deeper. “I applied to study in China because I was interested in understanding what was behind the political and economic transformation of the country, its culture, history, and ideals… I have much to learn about the Chinese system to transfer what I have learned back home, using the ideas that fit my country’s national, cultural, and historical contexts.”

Later, Dickson heard about Yenching Academy for the first time in a social media message forwarded by an alumnus. In addition to the interdisciplinary teaching system of the school, what attracts him most is the learning atmosphere here: “I considered the program because it offers a rich academic setting to connect me with an extraordinary international network of Scholars and professors for future engagements. Besides, what could be a more genuinely exciting opportunity than to study China within China?”

Regarding the two years at Yenching Academy, Dickson noted that he had gained much from this experience. “Although my cohort started a few months before the pandemic, I enjoyed our semester at the Shaoyuan dormitory. I had the best roommate, Gregor Bauer – a very nice, friendly, curious, and funny young man. I also got to meet and collaborate with other Scholars on different projects. The class discussions were engaging and insightful, and I loved the opportunity to plan events like the Yenching Global Symposium (YGS) and serve as a student assistant in five classes..”

In addition, one of his favourite aspects of learning at Yenching is the community. “The school provide a conducive learning environment and supportive academic staff who were always willing to listen and assist where necessary.”

In January 2020, Dickson and his friends returned to the dormitory after a trip to Harbin when the pandemic started. According to the school’s requirements, students residing on campus were to undertake closed management to prevent the spread of the virus. “The situation was not easy for everyone at the time, but the love and care from my classmates and the YCA staff showed me that despite being far from home – far from my family – I had another home here at Peking University.”

Learning from the Chinese Experience On- and Off-campus

Dickson’s experience transcends the classroom and campus. Through the introduction of teachers and classmates, he got two internship opportunities at UNICEF China Office and APCO Worldwide. “Through these two opportunities, I have a deeper understanding of China’s efforts in international development and some of China’s corporate culture and business operation model.” He added, “the internships also helped me grow my network beyond their Beijing offices. I joined several client meetings at APCO and collaborated with the UNICEF Western and Central Africa Regional Office staff to research and review reports about Chinese companies’ investments and child-related CSR activities in Africa.”

The internship experience in China also made Dickson feel the importance of Chinese. With the help of his colleagues, he has more opportunities and motivation to learn Chinese, and his interest in China is also deepening. After graduating from Yenching Academy in 2021, he chose to stay in China and enrolled in a doctoral program at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University.

From exploring politics to studying education, China’s development experience is still the main topic that Dickson wants to explore. The internship experience in the UNICEF China office and the study of Chinese education in the Yenching Academy’s “China in Transformation” course made him more aware of the vital role of education in national development.

“China’s rapid development over the past few decades has relied on massive investment and increased productivity. Educating and training talented people is one of the most important factors for increased productivity. I am deeply impressed by the emphasis on education development, especially since the reform and opening up; the modernization of education has been closely linked with China’s overall modernization process.” Based on this understanding, Dickson focuses his research on China’s education development experience. “Education can change lives.” He further noted, “The internship at UNICEF also allowed me to see some of China’s efforts in education equity. I hope to bring this experience to more places in the future.”

Standing on the World Stage Starting from Peking University

In the fall of 2021, Dickson applied through Peking University to become a volunteer for the Beijing Winter Olympics. Together with 14 other Peking University students, he participated in the performance of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. “I was very excited when I heard that I was selected. I knew this would be my highlight moment in China! But then there was long-term training; the training spanned for months, sometimes two to three days a week and sometimes late into the night. It was intense, but the trainers were very patient and kind to us. I made some friends, and we played games while we waited or rested for rehearsals to begin. I learned to play Uno and Chinese chess and taught my Chinese friends to play international chess.”

Recalling the night of performing in the Bird’s Nest, Dickson couldn’t hide his excitement. “Our program is called ‘Salute to the People’, and its content is very simple: 76 people from different countries and regions walked across the stage. But its meaning is deeper; it represents hope that all peoples (regardless of nationality, race, gender, and other issues that tend to divide us) can walk side-by-side towards the same goal. I took a peek at us on the big screen and the picture on the ground after we walked. Everything was so spectacular!”

Dickson, who has been in China for almost four years, likes living at Peking University. On the quiet, beautiful campus is a library with a rich collection of books and various canteens. “When night comes, the Boya Pagoda lights up and casts reflections on the water. The scenery is so beautiful”. His enthusiastic classmates and teachers and the different aspects of the Chinese society he has witnessed have contributed to his experience and choice to stay here to devote himself to Chinese studies.

“My exploits at Yenching Academy of Peking University and in China have exceeded my expectations. I consider YCA the starting point for all the changes I’ve experienced since arriving in China vis-à-vis personal, academic, and professional growth.”

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