Over the Summer, 18 SF State students travelled abroad to China to film and produce four documentaries in the course of the three weeks
The trip was organized by SF State film professor Weimin Zhang and is the only study abroad program offered by SF State that deeply immerses students in a foreign country.
“Many of our study abroad programs have not really that much of a deep involvement with locals,” said Dr. Yenbo Wu, SF State vice president of international education. “This particular model is totally different in the way [participants] are really integrating themselves physically, heart and soul, into that new context and environment.”
Students took notes and sought subjects as they were guided through historical villages in southwest China. They were introduced to locals who had been pre-arranged to meet for the first week.
“For any young filmmaker to really test themselves and see if they want to do this for the rest of their lives, this experience is opportune,” said Ernie Calderon, SF State alumnus.
The students each pitched their story at the end of the first week and then voted for the top four stories – breaking off into teams for the last two weeks.
“We were going in not knowing what our subject was going to be, so it was stressful not just for me, but for a lot of the other people,” said cinema major Sean McKiernan. “That was tough.”
Participants also take certain steps to prepare for the trip. Over the spring semester they are given Chinese language lessons offered twice a week by the Confucius Institute, a research and service organization at SF State that promotes the learning of Chinese language, teaching and culture, according to their website.
“The immersion in the culture was pretty awesome,” McKiernan said. “Actually going there and speaking to the locals and having the translators there to fill in what we didn’t know helped a lot.”
The Enlighten Enrichment School, a chinese immersion school in San Jose, also collaborated with the program by providing student translators to go abroad. This helped the Enlighten Enrichment students, who are usually American-born-Chinese, practice their Chinese in the real world and learn more about the culture their parents are from, according to Zhang.
Although participants took steps to prepare for the trip, there were some encounters that took them by surprise.
“Just getting a Wi-Fi connection was hard enough,” Calderón said.
The documentaries averaged about 15 minutes each and topics varied from China’s left-behind children to comparing the country’s traditional and modern values through the lens of Chinese small businesses. Back in California, the students presented their documentaries twice in open screenings at the Coppola Theater in the Fine Arts Building and the Enlighten Enrichment School in September.
Students always express how grateful they are for the experience they take away from this ‘bootcamp,’ which is more than a regular semester class could give them, according to Zhang.
“We had so much support when we were there, and each other. It’s a team effort, so you got to make sure to treat each other well, help build each other up and if you don’t, you’re just dragging everyone down,” said McKiernan, reflecting on the experience of being with the same group of people for three weeks.
The program is centered around documentary filmmaking; however, it is not exclusive to cinema majors. In past years, an anthropology major had participated, according to Zhang. An informational meeting and applications will be ready later this fall.
Zhang continues to organize this program because it challenges students to push their limits. Students leave the program feeling impressed at what they can achieve, and with the friendships and connections they formed.
“As a professor, as a teacher, this is something I like to do,” she said. “It feels like I’m changing lives and no other experience can compare to that.”