YCA Story | Amanda Cassano: An Optimistic Exploration of China

Amanda Cassano (2022 cohort, United States) received her B.A. in 2022 from Bowdoin College, where she majored in Economics and Asian Studies with a concentration in China Studies. She is a 2021 graduate of the Princeton in Beijing Summer Language program and a 2022 recipient of the U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship for Mandarin Chinese. At Yenching Academy, she is pursuing research in Chinese food safety, security, and sustainability through the Politics and International Relations track.

Amanda first heard about the Yenching Academy master’s program while in her third year of undergrad. “When I learned about YCA, it felt like a great fit for my interests and a unique opportunity to expand my understanding of China through experience and academics. I decided to apply, and now I am a member of the 8th cohort studying Politics and International Relations track.”

Yenching Scholars and alumni come from diverse cultural, national, and professional backgrounds, making the program an exciting place to enroll. Amanda noted how impressed she was by the diverse talents, interests, and life experiences shared by her classmates. “I am fascinated by the stories they share of their journey to Yenching. I feel incredibly grateful to be surrounded by many classmates who share a similar desire to learn about China and bring unique perspectives and insights to our discussions.”

The idea of studying China within China has always been an aspect of the YCA program that intrigues Amanda. So, cautious optimism engulfed her when news of international Scholars being welcomed back to China spread at the start of the Fall semester. Since arriving on campus for her studies, she explained that “my expectations have been far exceeded by increasing opportunities to engage face-to-face with faculty and classmates, conduct field research, travel, and pursue exciting career opportunities.”

Yenching Academy prides itself on developing a conducive student-centered learning environment for Scholars to thrive, pursue their interests, and express their ideas. Amanda commended the Academy’s small class sizes as it is an ideal environment for discussion-based seminars that boost Scholars’ learning and interacting experience. Although Yenching Academy courses are appealing and intellectually stimulating, Amanda’s favorite course during the Fall Semester was China in Transition. “CIT last semester was an amazing opportunity to approach China Studies from a new lens each week, with subjects ranging from China’s economic history to modern sociological trends. Not only did the class present subjects I had never previously considered, but it also created a common framework from which our group could engage in thoughtful intellectual debate.”

Speaking about her expectations and activities during the Spring semester, Amanda said she is eager to learn as much as possible from her courses, especially since many more Scholars have arrived on campus and classes have returned to an in-person setting. Also, Amanda mentioned that Yenching Scholars had continued a weekly language workshop series that started in the Fall. “So far, we have had workshops introducing Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesian, Thai, Persian, French, Korean, Malay, German, Tagalog, Albanian, and many more languages. The language series has been a fun cultural exchange among YCA Scholars and a great way for Scholars to teach something they are proud of and knowledgeable about!”

Amanda is leading a student-run research team under the YCA Dean’s Research Grant to conduct a case study analysis of China’s dairy sector and the structure of dragonhead enterprises. Her team traveled to Baoding in Hebei province, touring a dairy factory and interviewing local officials. “Organizing this project is an incredible opportunity to practice independent fieldwork, and we hope it will give us greater insight into the most recent developments in China’s agri-food industry.” Moreover, Amanda was among the delegates at the Yenching Global Symposium hosted in Hainan province in April, where experts in their fields discussed various China Studies-related themes. She also looks forward to the YCA field trip later in the semester. “I expect our cohort’s field study trip to Sichuan and Chongqing in June will be another highlight, particularly when we visit some historically and culturally significant areas such as the Sanxingdui archeological site.”

During the winter break, Amanda traveled around China to explore the country’s beautiful landscapes, culture, and cuisines. She toured the northern city of Harbin with some of her classmates, visiting the famous ice sculpture festival and appreciating hearty Northeastern cuisine. She also visited Guangxi and tried the local mifen while taking in the beautiful views of the mountains along the Lijiang River. “The highlight of my trip this winter was biking in Yangshuo village and appreciating the natural beauty of the countryside.”

Amanda believes she has experienced personal and professional growth since enrolling in the Academy, especially considering the many programs designed to help Scholars thrive. “Joining YCA has opened more doors than I ever could have imagined. The interdisciplinary nature of the program offers a wide range of personal and professional opportunities, including the Yenching Global Symposium and the Professional and Leadership Mentorship Program. The opportunity to learn from individuals who are leaders in their fields is an invaluable key to expanding on our interests and exploring career pathways.”

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