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Want to learn abroad? Gregor Strnad talks about Shanghai Summer School

The Shanghai Summer School is a highly regarded educational institutional in the heart of China’s biggest city. The school offers a variety of courses across a series of different disciplines, including arts, business, Chinese language and culture. The school is designed for anyone determined to make every day of their education count and feel meaningful, driving students towards open-mindedness. The school’s ethos appeals to those wishing to shake up the status quo, do something different and explore a new city, country and cultural experience.

Gregor Strnad, one of the co-founders of The Shanghai Summer School, answered a few of our questions regarding the school’s mission and values.

Gregor, when was The Shanghai Summer School founded and what was the purpose in doing so?

Shanghai Summer School started quite unexpectedly. I’d been to Shanghai and China a few times with my family but never really liked it. When the chance to do my semester abroad came up, Shanghai wouldn’t have been my first choice if not for my very persuasive friend, Andrej. That semester in Shanghai, everything changed. All my preconceived notions of Shanghai were proven wrong; we had an amazing semester! For the first time, I was able to truly experience the city. There was always so much going on.

After returning home, I felt that I wanted to share my experience with my peers, but didn’t know how. But one fine evening, over a chat with a very good friend of mine (who happens to be a very successful businessperson), his confidence and ‘nothing is impossible as long as you work hard’ mentality rubbed off me. Soon after that, I called Vid, another great friend I made while in Shanghai, and suggested to him that we start our own summer school in Shanghai. He agreed to come onboard with this, and is now my fellow co-founder. Within two weeks, we had a plan for Shanghai Summer School ready. This included a signed agreement with our current academic partner, Donghua University.

Our objective at the beginning was simply to share our experiences and favourite spots in Shanghai with the world. But somewhere along the way it developed into something deeper. At Shanghai Summer School, we truly believe in the value of young people spending time abroad and spending it meaningfully. My previous short trips to China did not leave an impression on me, but my extended stay in Shanghai as an exchange student changed my mind about the city, the country, and opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. We believe that language and cultural barriers can be broken, and opportunities can be pursued, through a better understanding of cultures and systems beyond our own. Overall, it’s our little contribution to building a world without borders.

What are the key differences between the “intensive” experience and the “classic” experience?

The “classic” experience is a 4-week program that we have been running from the beginning. It includes four weeks of Chinese language classes, cultural workshops, lectures on China, sightseeing activities, and lots more. It allows our participants enough time to assimilate, forge firm friendships, as well as discover all that the city has to offer, at a more relaxed pace.

The “intensive” experience was born after the realisation that there was a group of students who wanted to be a part of the Shanghai Summer School experience but were not able to spare four entire weeks of their summer vacation. As its name suggests, the “intensive” experience is essentially a more intensive version of our “classic” experience. It’s almost identical to the “classic” experience, except it is condensed into a compact, two-week experience for those who are more time-sensitive.

The newest addition to our experiences in 2020 is the “6-week summer-long experience”. This experience was launched after receiving feedback from past participants who wanted to extend their stay beyond the 4-week program. This program offers everything our “Classic” experience offers but has a focus on Chinese language learning. Participants in the Summer-long experience will receive two extra weeks of Chinese lessons.

What type of students enrol in your school?

Our participants are from very diverse backgrounds and come from all over the world. While primarily European, we also have participants from the Asian and American continents. Nationality aside, many of our students are open-minded individuals looking to connect beyond borders, to explore a completely different culture and country in-depth, and to have a different summer experience.

Many of our participants have an interest in the rise of China and Asia in the recent decade. Shanghai being an economic powerhouse in the region makes it an attractive choice for spending one’s summer, especially for our more ambitious and enterprising participants.

On the opposite spectrum, we also have participants who are fascinated by ancient Chinese culture and history, which often also includes the Chinese language. While about half our participants come not knowing a single word of Mandarin Chinese, many have or are studying the language back home, and were looking to come to China over the summer to learn the language while being immersed in the culture and society.

What would be your advice to a new student trying to get the most out of their time at Shanghai Summer School?

From the get-go we remind our participants that time will fly. Two, four, or six weeks can seem like a long time, but it will be over in a blink of an eye. This is why we constantly remind our participants to not stay in their dorms, but to go out and explore, connect with fellow participants and locals, and make the most of their time in Shanghai.

Many things will seem unfamiliar and even a little scary. Chinese food may be too bold on the taste buds, navigating the web of lines that make up the Shanghai metro can be daunting, and trying to converse with a local in Mandarin Chinese for the first time can be nerve-wrecking. Still, we always encourage our participants to at least try everything once. It’s part of the experience and part of their journey of discovery of the city, its ways, and of themselves!

A lot of thought has been put into making sure we provide the best experiences in our Shanghai Summer School program. We want them to leave Shanghai feeling the way I felt after my semester abroad there – enamoured by the city, hungry for more such adventures, fulfilled by time well-spent, and so happy to have forged life-time international friendships. No matter what we say or do, they are the only ones who can determine what they get out of the experience.

Do students need to be fluent in Chinese to attend your courses?

A very good question. Absolutely not. As mentioned above, I would say that around 50% of our participants never spoke any Chinese before coming for summer school.

The Chinese language courses we provide in collaboration with our academic partners at Donghua University is divided into six different levels based on the HSK levels. The HSK is the standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of China for non-native speakers. On day one, participants take a placement test, which will help our teachers determine the level that best suits the student.

The levels range from Level 1, which is perfect for participants with absolutely no prior knowledge of the Chinese language, to Level 6, for participants with an advanced grasp of the language. There is something for everyone. Courses and teaching methods are tweaked to match the needs of students at each proficiency level. Our native Chinese teachers also place emphasis on making learning the language enjoyable and immersive.

How do you differentiate your course structure compared to other similar summer schools?

We place strong emphasis on an all-round experience. Most summer schools in China offer only Chinese language lessons. We believe that the summer school experience should be more than just that. China’s rich history and traditions, as well as Shanghai’s story, come hand in hand with learning the language of the land. Which is why our programs offer a variety of insights into the cultural, business, historical and modern aspects of the country.

Participants get to spend a calm afternoon indulging in the age-old tradition of Chinese tea ceremony, guided by a tea expert, they get to look down at the city from atop the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second tallest building, and they get to hear about the business climate in China from experts at the heart of its thriving start-up boom.

Despite the action-packed programs we offer, we are still one of the most affordable summer schools in Shanghai. We are on average between 400-700 USD cheaper than our competitors.

Having spent a substantial amount of time in Shanghai as students ourselves, we believe we have a good understanding of what makes our participants tick. We understand the different nuances and quirks of the city like the back of our hands, which is why we know exactly where to take our participants to make sure they have an amazing time.

Where do you see Shanghai Summer School in the next 10 years?

I’m glad you asked. We’ve learned a lot in the years since Shanghai Summer School was established. Armed with the knowledge of building and leading great programs in great cities and having a more refined understanding of what people look for in a summer school, we are looking to expand to other cities around the world. We plan to launch new experiences in Singapore and Hong Kong very soon.

I hope that in 10 years we will have expanded our repertoire to five to seven other cities, mostly in Asia and Europe. I also hope that one of our future European destinations will be in my hometown in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Which I objectively believe to be one of the best cities in the world!

Shanghai Summer School; Built by millennials for millennials