Julien Legrand is a first cohort scholar of the Yenching Academy, who is currently working for Boston Consulting Group, France. Below is an article he wrote to share his experience at the Yenching Academy.
Before being selected as a Yenching Scholar, I had already visited China at three occasions: for a summer language program in Beijing first, then for a short-term student exchange and finally for 4 month speriod during which I worked for a small consulting boutique in Beijing while simultaneously attending Peking University's Globex Summer School.
At every encounter the country kept on amazing me as I would progressively discover its culture, language and history, but also its energy, forward-thinking, and optimism. As I was leaving the country for the third time, I already knew I would be back sooner or later.
Back then I was a last-year student at Mines ParisTech, a top French Engineering School whose uniqueness is that it requires its students to master knowledge in a very broad range of disciplines: I studied not only mathematics and physics, but also law, marketing and finance, and specialized in Innovation Strategy. While doing an internship at Orange, France's leading telecom company I wrote my master thesis on the way technology companies leverage digital platforms to animate and shape their ecosystems.
However busy I was with my studies, China was still at the back of my head. So when the vice-dean of my school invited me in his office to discuss about his last visit to Peking University, and the launch of a new high-end program, one can imagine how excited I was. "This is a program for the future, Julien" he told me, referring to the Yenching Academy global ambitions. The core idea of the program was to gather bright students from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, to learn and explore China. He did not have to say much more to have me on board! There will be some drawbacks though, he warned me, as the program was very young and recruiting its first cohort. It was currently still under development and there was very low visibility on the curricula of studies. Was I ready to take the risk? Yes I was, and I would do it again!
The Yenching Academy proved to be exactly the place depicted by the vice-dean of Mines ParisTech. Never before had I had the chance to meet such a diverse group of amazing people, be it because of their nationality, academic background or life experiences. In the same day, you could start with a steam bun breakfast discussing with a Russian about the consequences of IMF’s integration of the RMB into its SDR basket (not the best topic for a breakfast, I reckon), jump into a class on Chinese politics, debate about the Thucydides Trap at lunch with Chinese and American friends, explore Beijing tech scene (Beijing's own Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun, is 5 minutes away from PKU’s campus) with an Israeli classmate, and finish the day sharing beers with European friends discussing the impact of China's rise on our own economies and national politics.
I was surrounded by amazing people who inspired me on so many different levels. My colleagues helped me to become a better, more prepared individual, while exploring new disciplines I had never been exposed to: linguists and engineers do not usually seat together in a classroom.
Even though my overall experience was extremely positive, I will not deny that challenge spaved the way of the program's first year, and many things still needed fine tuning. The Academy is deeply committed to solve those problems though, and,during my stay, its leadership proved to be incredibly open to solutions suggested by students. The governance was incredibly supportive to its students' initiatives: I had the chance to be a member of the Yenching Global Symposium's Executive Committee, a student-led three-day long conference that gathered outstanding students and young professionals from all over the world to engage and to debate with great doers and thinkers such as Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, or Kaiser Kuo, Baidu’s former Director of International Communication. Organizing an event of this magnitude for such a young program would have never been possible in any other setting! The Yenching Academy was quite unique for offering this kind of possibilities.
The program does not only bring together diverse students to organize brilliant activities that relate to China, but it also offers them a real platform to explore the infinitely complex country. I tend to think that the program is especially beneficial to students with a very precise idea of a China-based project they want to build during their Yenching experience. Mine was to get familiar with the local booming tech scene, a topic I got interested in following my first master thesis. As I started to publish articles based on my researches for Yenching courses, I got noticed by an Air Liquide Vice-President, one of France's largest industrial companies, who offered me to investigate the digital health market in China for the company. During my second semester, I therefore explored the local medtech ecosystem, providing its first in-depth overview while identifying trends for the future: Air Liquide ended up using this research as a ground to develop its healthcare strategy for the Chinese market.
Today, as I am back in France to start a career as strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, I can only feel grateful for the unique and unforgettable experience the Yenching Academy offered me: from the incredibly diverse set of people I got to meet to the fantastic opportunities it opened for me in China. This has been a life-changing experience, one that I would recommend to students from any background with a specific project to develop in the Middle Kingdom. As for myself, I look forward to my next China adventure !