Semester Abroad Q&A with Ian Bayer, CAS '20

February 17, 2021
By Shreya Naraparaju, CAS '22

Ian Bayer, a 2020 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences with majors in biology and political science, spent a semester abroad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in the Fall of 2018. We sat down with Ian last spring as he approached graduation to dive deeper into his time at CUHK, his experiences throughout Asia, and his hopes for future travels.

What do you study at Penn and what clubs are you involved in?

I study biology and political science. I'm a member of the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), Assembly of International Students (AIS), and the Penn Swim Club. I also work as a biology researcher and a TA.

What incentivized you to go abroad in the first place, and why did you choose the location and/or the program that you did?

I went abroad because I wanted something different from Penn. I wanted to change it up. I love to travel and go abroad rather frequently. I started to think about my study abroad when I visited my older sister in London during her study abroad. While it was nice, I realized I wanted something different. I wanted to encounter a culture vastly different from America, and for that reason I chose Hong Kong. I also wanted to visit countries in East and Southeast Asia.

When did you decide you wanted to go abroad?

The winter break of my sophomore year. I applied during my sophomore spring and was accepted to go abroad during my junior fall.

Can you tell me more about what your program was like, what classes you took, and what you did in those classes?

The program was well suited to students from around the world. I took five classes. One of the reasons why I went to CUHK is that other study abroad programs required you to basically join a department, whereas CUHK was very open and you could take almost whatever classes you wanted. There were classes in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. I took history, biology, and political science classes. 

Did you have a favorite class?

I thoroughly enjoyed my Southeast Asian history class. The course covered the last 500 years of multiple Southeast Asian countries and discussed recent developments in foreign policy with ASEAN. As a political science major, I found this really enlightening. The course also gave me fantastic travel ideas. At the end of class, the professor would always ask me where I was going and offer me his advice.

How often did you explore the city?

Pretty often, but not as much as I wished.  I lived in a dorm conveniently located right next to the metro, so I used it often. I used uber as well. Occasionally, I’d call a taxi, but they were expensive. Those were the main ways I got around Hong Kong. The campus is not in Central Hong Kong or Hong Kong Island. It’s further out in the New Territories. Though it was still manageable to leave campus every weekend and a few times during the school week.

Did you travel anywhere else and if so what places?

Yes, I traveled a lot while I was there. I went to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Macau, and South Korea. I was happy I carved out enough time for exploration. I accomplished a lot of my travel goals!

How did your abroad experience compare to your Penn experience, either in the differences between the schooling systems or just in general?

It's different there in that most courses only meet once a week, but they meet for a longer time period. Therefore, every single class is like a seminar class at Penn because they're almost three hours long. Sometimes, they do have recitations, but they're called tutorials. 

What do you think was the biggest takeaway from your abroad experience?

I'm much more comfortable living in another country now than I thought I would be. I would be happy to do it again. I would really like to live in Singapore or Tokyo or somewhere in Europe. I'd like to go to Europe since I've done so much more traveling in Asia. 

Is there anything that you would have changed about your semester looking back in retrospect?

On my less hectic class days, I would have liked to have explored more of Hong Kong outside of CUHK. That bubble effect was tough to overcome during the school week. I wish I went out more often. During the school week, I’d eventually make it out at the end of classes, but it was not as far and for as long as I wished. During my long weekends though, it was super easy to leave campus.

I think that joining a club would have been a good experience too, as I really enjoyed the friendships I formed with local students. Some of them have actually visited me in America during their semesters abroad and internships.

Do you have any advice you would give to another student looking to travel to Asia or study at CUHK?

I would say that living on campus is the best option for accommodations because it's expensive to live off. Most apartments are also far from campus. While traveling in Asia, stay in hostels to save money. I stayed in hostels and it was a great way to meet people. Most importantly, be sure to manage your expectations. Things will often not happen as planned. 

Rapid-fire Questions

Favorite food that you tried?

Australian mango ice in Taiwan. They have strawberry ice as well. It's very good! I thought Taiwan had the best food out of all the places I went.

Most essential item that you packed?

I can’t settle on one. My laptop is of course important for school. My scuba diving license was also important. I went diving on several occasions. My noise-cancelling Bose headphones were useful for flights. They made them way better.

A place you'd like to visit next?

I really want to travel in South America, particularly to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. Morocco in North Africa also seems interesting. In Europe, I really want to go to Iceland.

Did you have any favorite souvenirs that you brought back?

I'd say mostly the photos I took. I also got another dive logbook, which was nice since I finished my first one.

What are three words you would use to describe your study abroad experience?

Immersive, I got to know locals and professors and other cultures pretty well. I wouldn’t have had an in-depth experience if I visited Hong Kong for a few days. I would also say inquisitive since I was pretty interested in trying a lot of different things and visiting new places. For example, I tried scorpion in Cambodia and crickets in Thailand. And lastly, independent. I was pretty comfortable doing things on my own.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

Semester Abroad
by Kristyn Palmiotto, Penn Abroad Associate Director