Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: Yongfang Chen '10

Story posted October 30, 2009

"Bowdoin as a Lifelong Gift"

Bowdoin College's 2009 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 30, 2009, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by student speaker Yongfang Chen '10.

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Yongfang Chen '10

Welcome! I am very honored to be speaking at this year's Sarah and James Bowdoin Day. I was actually surprised when I received a letter from the dean of student affairs notifying me that I was a Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholar.

Because my first year GPA was 3.0, I never imagined that I would be standing in front of you elaborating on my educational experience at Bowdoin. In four years, Bowdoin has fulfilled me intellectually and changed who I am in a variety of ways. My academic journey at Bowdoin was reflected in a book I wrote in May of last year. Published by the China Publishing Group, my book focused mainly on my academic experience at Bowdoin, such as reading load, writing intensity and class participation. This was the first book in China to elaborate on the educational philosophies inherent in an American liberal arts education. It was well-received and the first printing sold out in three months. Today, I want to tell you four stories about how my time at Bowdoin has brought me here. These stories inspired me to write the book.

My first story is about stretching ideas. I have a wide variety of scholarly interests, from philosophy to history. Since my first day at Bowdoin, because English is not my first language, the primary challenge I encountered was digesting more than 300 pages of reading materials in one day. One memorable example was the gay and lesbian studies class I took in my second year. Reading Michel Foucault's abstruse The History of Sexuality was a catastrophic journey. Foucault is a French writer who combines philosophy with historical retrospective. I had no idea what Foucault meant after a week of intensive reading. At Professor Coviello's suggestion, I turned to Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher, and then came back to Foucault. I spent one entire month thinking about Foucault's classic tri-argument concerning discourse, knowledge and power. I stretched my thinking tremendously and even argued with Foucault in my dreams. All my classmates said that I was enchanted by Foucault. Although I still cannot fully grasp what he meant, being pushed helped me gain insight into Foucault's ideas. For most of us, I believe, Bowdoin has emphasized the importance of questioning the unquestionable and understanding the impossible. That was my first gift from Bowdoin. Indeed, Bowdoin is an ideal place to stretch ideas, explore uncertainty and test hypotheses.

Yongfang Chen '10 Writes the Book on American Liberal Arts College Experience
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Yongfang Chen '10 with a display of his books at Shanghai Book City, the largest bookstore in Shanghai.

Read about Chen's book, A True Liberal Arts Education (China Publishing Group, 2009).


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While the language barrier was relatively easy to conquer, assimilating into a new culture so different from my own was a much more demanding task. My second story is about finding what in China may be considered "the answer." Coming from a culture in which a "standard answer" is provided for every question, I did not argue with others even when I disagreed. However, Bowdoin forced me to re-consider "the answer" and reach beyond my comfort zone. In my first-year-seminar, East Asian Politics, I was required to debate with others and develop a habit of class engagement. This sometimes meant raising counter-arguments or even disagreeing with what had been put forward. For instance, one day we debated what roles Confucianism played in the development of Chinese democracy. Of the 16 students in the classroom, 15 agreed that Confucianism impeded China's development; but I disagreed. I challenged my classmates. At Bowdoin, on many occasions, you will find that there are no "standard answers." More ironically, the "standard answer" is often the wrong answer. Bowdoin made me consistently question the "prescribed answer."

My third story is about gaining confidence. When I was a first-year student, professors often challenged my English writing. I often needed to revise my papers multiple times before the deadline. Faced with this obstacle, I intentionally selected at least one writing-intensive class every semester as a way to improve my writing proficiency. Writing with more confidence, effectiveness and conciseness made me a better thinker. In my junior year, my English writing reached a new height. I completed three independent studies in the Asian studies, history, and economics departments. I was particularly drawn to my history paper in which I critically analyzed the rise and fall of the only Chinese female emperor. Writing this paper was extremely intense but exciting because academic scholars are sharply divided about her route to power and her methods of maintaining legitimacy. I feel grateful to Bowdoin because it urged me to take the initiative and gave me the confidence to write about any subject that I felt interested in investigating.

The critical thinking skills and confidence Bowdoin gave me helped me learn to manage a team. My last story is therefore about leadership. Spanning over a year from 2008 to 2009, I led a team publishing the book I mentioned earlier titled A True Liberal Arts Education. I wanted to write this book because the concept of the liberal arts education is still extremely foreign and unfamiliar to the Chinese audience. In eight months, I devoted all my spare time to writing the book. As a leader, I overcame numerous obstacles throughout the entire process from organizing the team to finding the publisher. After reading the book, many Chinese readers told me that they envied my Bowdoin experience and that they wished to relive their college lives. I could not have written the book and successfully led the team without the skills I had acquired from Bowdoin. The confidence, sensitivity and vision Bowdoin cultivated in me contributed to my leadership.

Hence, the last gift I received from Bowdoin was leadership. To me, leadership is neither simply to lead nor taking control. Certainly, leadership is not something that's always revealed in a professional setting. Bowdoin makes me think of leadership much more broadly. In my opinion, leadership is the ability to perceive a demand, set the goal and strive for it. Indeed, leadership is about contribution and making a lasting impact. In four years, Bowdoin refined my leadership by improving my reasoning skills, helping me move forward and permitting me to think about the impossible. I firmly believe that all of us receive gifts from Bowdoin in different forms.

As an international student, I received generous financial assistance from Bowdoin. Today, I want to thank Bowdoin for that investment. Without Bowdoin, I could never have become the person I am now. I feel truly grateful to Bowdoin for providing me with such a transformational experience both academic and personal. As a first-year student, I came to Bowdoin filled with doubt, hesitation and rigid thinking. As a senior, I will step out of the Bowdoin bubble with curiosity, empathy and a thirsty mind.

Remember that Bowdoin is not simply a place to learn. Indeed, Bowdoin is a place to stretch ideas, construct and reconstruct core values, challenge the unchallengeable and nurture future leaders. Today, as we celebrate the superior academic performance each one of us has achieved here, I encourage you to follow your heart and take some risks — risks that push you toward a totally different path. Do not lose yourself in the crowd. After all, what Bowdoin gave you will fulfill your desire to explore unfamiliar territory, answer unanswered questions and further polish your leadership skills. Bowdoin has given you a lifelong gift. Please enjoy it.

Thank you very much.

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