Success despite politics and pollution

Daniel Lobell is first UB student to travel to China through CSI Program

The Spectrum

In 17 Norton Hall, Daniel Loebell, a junior Asian studies major with a global gender studies and Chinese minor, stood wearing a red Peking University hoodie, digging deep into his Totoro pencil case. He was looking for a pen while getting ready to make a presentation on his abroad experience in China last semester - one of the best experiences of his life, he said.

Loebell is the only UB student who has gone to China through the Chinese Studies Institute (CSI) to study at Beijing University. He found his time abroad to be a fruitful experience, even with China's controversial censorship policies and pollution problems, he said.

The program, established in 1981, encourages students from all over the world to experience Chinese culture. After finding the program through SUNY Brockport, Loebell met students from Lebanon, Nepal, India, Sweden and areas around the United States. He developed close ties with students from around the world, the program directors and even his professors, who bought him a cake for his 21st birthday. The sense of trust within the community was one of the best parts of the experience, according to Loebell.

"The program coordinators would always be on top of things," Loebell said. "Anytime the pollution was bad or anytime we needed to be alerted of something, they would always go out of their way to email us on time. I never felt that my professors were keeping us in the dark, even in a country that keeps a lot of its people in the dark."

Internet censorship is an issue of controversy within and outside of China's walls. The communist government frequently attempts to control what its citizens can read, discuss and share online.

"When you go onto websites like YouTube, Facebook, The New York Times, even BBC, you'll get a message that says, 'The connection was reset.' That's just another way of saying that China's censorship firewall is blocking this site," Loebell said.

Despite the government's attempts, finding ways around the firewall didn't prove to be difficult - it was only a matter of looking up a Virtual Private Network (VNP) to get around them.

"We even learned vocab words in class for getting around firewalls," Loebell said. "It's something even Chinese civilians use to get access."

Although the restrictions on free information were troubling, Loebell found the fast pace and pollution of Beijing's urbanized neighborhoods to be the most inconvenient parts of staying in the city.

Beijing has the second worst living environment among 40 other major cities around the world, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Businesses and school activities are often canceled due to health risks caused by the smog outside. Hong Li, an associate professor of the CSI program, expressed concern for the safety of the students and citizens of Beijing in an email.

"A big concern we have is about air quality in Beijing, especially during the winter time," Li said. "[We] hope the government may have some more effective measures to improve the air quality so that the city will become a much more attractive destination for students coming to China."

Though he had to work around China's pollution and censorship laws, Loebell views the trip as an ultimately positive experience. He is strongly considering going back to China to work after college.

During his time abroad, he interned at Women's Watch China, a nongovernmental organization law firm dedicated to protecting women's rights and advocating for gender equality with free services. Many of their lawyers dispute land rights cases, dealing with recently widowed women whose land has been confiscated by village communities.

The internship was the perfect compliment to Loebell's chosen major and minors, and he believes it augmented his experience abroad.

"It certainly raised my interest in the field of law," Loebell said. "I'd also like to consider working in China for a time because that's the best way to improve my Mandarin speaking skills."

Loebell enjoyed his time in the workplace as well as on campus. His favorite place to spend time was on a pavilion overlooking a fishpond, which was once part of the emperor's imperial gardens. Although much of it has been replaced by university buildings or destroyed by foreign invasions, the architecture and general organization of campus is still rich in history and beauty, according to Loebell.

"They really love their imperial history there," Loebell said. "They really try to maintain a lot of this historical architecture ... seeing the old, dried up moats around campus make you realize that there was something grand here."

Loebell's taste of adventure abroad has made him not only stronger in the language, but also more cultured.