Leonie Kellerhof talks about her choice to do a dual degree in London and Beijing, her experience of living abroad and her favourite activities in her free time.
First of all, congratulations on winning the British Council IELTS Award, Leonie!
Can you tell us something about yourself and your background?
I grew up and went to school in a small town south of Hamburg where my family still lives today. I was a very shy and quiet child during most of my school years – but when I was in 10th grade, I spent a semester abroad at catholic girls’ school in the south of Ireland. Going to school abroad changed my perspective immensely. Everyone there was very welcoming, and I loved how the experience made me much more confident and open-minded.
Coming out of school, I knew that I wanted to go abroad during university, and preferably for more than one semester. The programme I chose was the English-taught BA in Digital Media at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, which offers a Joint Degree with City University of Hong Kong. I had never been to Asia before, but when I arrived in Hong Kong in January of 2016 I instantly fell in love. I stayed in the city for two years, studying for both my major in Digital Media and a minor in Political Science, before going back to Germany to finish my degree.
In Hong Kong most university classes are taught in English, which allowed me to make friends with both international and local students at the same time. I loved discussing the course content with them and learning about their opinions and viewpoints. Furthermore, especially in Digital Media most courses were project-based, which meant a lot technical and creative work. Going out and learning about the city by producing short films or art projects about it added a lot to my experience. Lastly, I was fascinated by how visible political culture of the city was among my classmates in Political Science classes. In the end, I was very grateful that I got to spend two whole years taking the city in, and it was this experience that inspired me to pursue a Master’s Degree in International Affairs.
What are your study plans for the upcoming year?
I am studying for a Dual Master’s in International Affairs at Peking University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. For this, I will spend the upcoming year in Beijing where I will focus on Chinese politics and China’s International Relations. My classes in the first semester cover a range of topics, from China’s demographics to political economy, as well as Mandarin. I really appreciate that studying Mandarin is a mandatory part of the degree, as I want to spend more time learning it and improve while I also have the chance to speak it in daily life in China. Lastly, as I did my Bachelor’s degree in Digital Media and also have a bit of work experience in the field, I am hoping to get a chance to gain more insight into the role digital technology plays in China. Whether that is something I will be able to do academically or more in my daily life I will hopefully figure out in the coming weeks.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
After coming home to Lüneburg and Leuphana University in early 2018 I experienced a kind of “reverse culture shock”. Many things I had come to get used to in my day to day life and my studies in Hong Kong were – again – completely different in Germany. I especially gained a lot of perspective on how prevalent specific opinions are in specific university communities and how easy it is to be less critical when most viewpoints you have are mirrored by the people around you. I also reflected a lot about what I learnt in Hong Kong and how this as well was heavily influenced by the local culture and political atmosphere. Realizing how much there is to gain in placing yourself in situations where you can analyse your own experiences from a more removed perspective helped me decide on wanting to study abroad once more for my Masters.
Why did you choose London and Beijing as your study destinations?
The two years I spent in Hong Kong have had an immense influence on me personally and academically, so I knew I wanted to return to China in the future. Hong Kong is an amazing place to start learning about China because the city’s semi-autonomous status allows for both an inside and an outside perspective on the country at large. However, the more I thought about what I had learned so far, the more I realized that in order to extend that experience and challenge my own viewpoints again, it would be very valuable to study in Mainland China. At the same time, there is a lot to learn from the way political subjects are taught in Europe, and especially so with regards to China. The LSE is one of the best institutions for political science in the world, so I believe it will be an excellent space to further develop what I learn and observe in my first year. Coming from my highly positive experience with studying in a dual degree programme for my Bachelor’s, I knew spending a year in both Beijing and London studying would be a great choice for me, so I was very excited to be accepted into the programme.
What impact do you want to make after finishing your degree?
China’s role in the world has become a very central one, and one of the fastest developing factors of this is technology. I would love to combine my knowledge of digital media and international relations to make an impact in international communications and digitization. The implications that digitization will have on development, human rights and international relations and conflict are something I believe will be considered more and more in the coming decades and I would love to contribute to the process of finding a balance between innovation and regulation.
How were your first days in Beijing?
Beijing is easily the largest city I have ever been to – over 21 million people live here! This reflects in the size of pretty much everything, from the roads, to the amount of subway lines and the campus of Peking University. I am lucky to live in university accommodation, but I still get lost on campus every time I try to find a class. The administrative process of enrolling in university here has also been a very complicated experience: despite China being on the forefront of digitization in many ways, everything was paper based. I don’t think I’ve ever filled out as many forms in my life – once I even had to redo one because I used the wrong type of pen! Luckily, I found some great friends in my classmates early on and we could master the process together.
There is also a lot about living here that I love already. First and foremost: mobile payment! WeChat is the core of technology in daily life here and using my phone to pay for anything from food, to gym memberships, train tickets and administrative fees excites me a lot. At the moment I still carry a bit of emergency cash everywhere, but I think I will try to go fully mobile for a day soon, if it doesn’t happen by itself. I also love that I can use WeChat to rent shared bikes at every corner of the city and bike instead of using the subway. Biking being as prevalent as it is here is definitely not something I would have expected from such a large city.
Based on your experience so far, what would you tell young people who are thinking about studying abroad (or living abroad)?
Stay for as long as possible! Nowadays there is a lot of focus on the amount of countries one has been to, but in my opinion the most meaningful, valuable and sustainable connections to a place develop over time. I personally prefer experiencing and learning about one place in depth to moving around a lot – even though there can be value in that as well. So, if you get the chance to study abroad, I would recommend you challenge yourself to go slowly and take in the details, even if studying abroad can be a whirlwind! However, I also know from my own experience that staying far away from home for a long time can be very daunting. If you are worrying about leaving, there are many short-term options to ease into it, such as summer schools or semester break volunteering placements abroad.
How did you hear about the IELTS Award?
I knew when I applied to the Dual Degree that I would have to finance the tuition fees by myself, so I started to research scholarship options early on. However, it was actually when I was looking at the different English test options, that I came across the 2018 IELTS Award blog and found it really interesting. I appreciate the scholarship’s focus on promoting studying abroad through personal stories because before I first went abroad, I loved reading about other student’s experiences online to ease my fear of going. I hope I can give something of my own experience back in the same way to someone else. I also really like the social aspect of the scholarship – studying abroad at all, and in an expensive programme like mine especially, is a huge privilege and I am grateful that the scholarship focuses on the need to use this privilege for the larger good of society after graduation.
How did you learn about IELTS? Why did you choose this test and what was your experience with the test?
When I got my offer from PKU and LSE one of the conditions was that I take an English test. I liked that IELTS was being offered in many locations close to my home and on many dates, so I could flexibly choose a date around my schedule of studying and working part-time. Many universities I looked into also recommended IELTS for its academic focus – and indeed the questions on the test felt very similar to the way how I used English during my Bachelor’s degree. Lastly, I chose IELTS due to the spoken exam being held in person by an examiner and I am very glad I did. The test actually felt more like a pleasant conversation between the examiner and me and she managed to make me feel less nervous immediately.
Would you recommend the IELTS test to students who are aiming to study abroad?
I would recommend it because in my opinion the test reflects the way you will actually use English while studying abroad very well. By focusing on both academic aspects and daily life communication skills I believe the test results will give both you and the staff of the programme you are applying to a good overview of your actual language level.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I find that the way I like to spend my free time very much depends on the place I am in – in Hong Kong I loved going on hikes and taking ferries to outlying islands. In Lüneburg my favourite activities were going for coffee with my friends in the old town and hosting breakfast or dinner parties for our friends with my flatmates. Either way, the most important thing to me is spending time with my friends and having conversations. I find encouragement again and again in the inspiring people around me and I love how we support each other and push each other to do better and achieve our goals. This is one thing that does not depend on location – thanks to the internet I can reach out to my friends at home from anywhere in the world, and thanks to studying abroad I can meet more amazing people again and again!
In Beijing I can see myself becoming a frequent park-goer – I love how many of them there are here. Even in a megacity such as this one, you can get a break from the rush by bringing a book to the park and spending an afternoon reading there. Another way of slowing down for me is analogue photography. I take a lot of pictures with my phone every day, but in the end, I always appreciate the ones I take on film the most. There is something special about only ever taking one picture of something and then having to wait a while before you get to see it.
Other than that, I am very much looking forward to ice-skating on the lake at Peking University in the winter! I am not a professional ice-skater by far, but I have always loved it and I heard it is big part of campus culture here in the winter.