Alumni Continue Giving Back to the HNC by Transitioning to Staff

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by: Caroline Yarber

NANJING–The Hopkins-Nanjing Center provides a unique opportunity for SAIS students. Not only do students receive an immersive perspective on US-China relations, but also become a part of a tight-knit community of likeminded people. A significant portion of the current staff are former students of the Center who wish to remain a lasting part of this community. We spoke with two young alumni of the Center to find out why they chose to start their careers at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and what they have learned about the Center from the staff perspective.


Niu Xiaohu (left) and Lauren Syzmanski (right). Source: author

Lauren Szymanski and Niu Xiaohu both joined the HNC staff in 2012. Based in DC, Szymanski is the Deputy Director for the HNC Washington Office. She graduated from the HNC Certificate program in 2012 and joined the admissions side of the Center two weeks after graduation as an Admissions Coordinator. She was drawn to the position after speaking with another alumna working in recruiting. Lauren shares, “When I was graduating from the HNC I thought to myself that if I could just share my own experiences as a student with those considering the HNC for the first time, maybe it could make their application process a bit less stressful than mine!”

Niu Xiaohu is the Assistant to the Deputy Director for Academic Affairs at the Center in Nanjing. He completed the Certificate program in 2011 and graduated from Nanjing University with a Master’s in Acquired Linguistics the following year. Like Szymanski, Niu decided to join the HNC staff soon after graduating because of his strong connection with HNC community. Upon graduating, Niu realized he had no desire to work in a regulated office environment. Feeling at home at the HNC, Niu decided to continue giving back to the HNC family.


Szymanski with roommate Fan Xuejiao in 2012. Source: Lauren Syzmanski

Szymanski’s experience as a student has directly influenced her decisionmaking as a staff member. I am able to bring forward some of the challenges I personally faced as a student, and hopefully try to coordinate some ways to make those challenges less trying for new students. For example, when I was considering the HNC I remember hearing over and over about the dreaded learning curve, and even though eventually everyone overcomes it there didnt seem to be any steps I could take beforehand to try and lessen that adjustment period. However, Im happy to announce that starting this last year we have started including actual readings from HNC classes on our admitted student website so that new students can try to get a jump start on that learning curve. She aims to help “more students can really get a feel for what it’s like to study at the HNC” and uses her experiences as a student to reach this goal.

Similarly, Niu draws on his experience as a student to assist incoming students adjusting to the Center. He knows that the first two months at the Center are what he calls a “honeymoon period” in which students are excited to be in this new environment. The real trouble comes in the third month, according to Niu, when students can get tired and stressed. Niu’s advice to students currently experiencing this shift: “don’t worry; no one is perfect.” Szymanski imparts a similar reassuring message to students as we approach the end of the semester: “Just take a deep breath, and take every day one at a time!”


Niu (far left) with classmates in 2011. Source: Niu Xiaohu

Both alumni urge students to embrace their time at the Center. Niu emphasizes the importance of education as the key to one’s future. He encourages students to focus on what they are doing here and now at the Center and to not get distracted by prospective opportunities for after graduation. Szymanski also encourages students to take advantage of the resources at the Center, naming her biggest regret as not seeking out professors outside of class.

Niu and Szymanski share a passion for the exceptional environment offered at the HNC. As an international student, Szymanski emphasizes the importance of leaving the Center and embracing life in China. Niu recognizes the value to be gained within the Center, encouraging students to actively engage their Chinese or International counterparts in dialogue. “Our students come here because they want to know about the world, and [through this exchange] they can make a real difference.”

Looking ahead, Niu and Szymanski both aim to make a lasting difference at the HNC. Despite the geographical distance between Szymanski and the HNC, she stays engaged by reaching out to ever prospective student to ensure their transition to the HNC is a positive experience. Niu draws inspiration from former HNC Chinese Co-Director Huang Chengfeng. He describes the personal connection she had with each student and the lengths she went to in order to truly consider the needs of students. Due to her reputation among students as a great person and effective educator, the Huang Chengfeng scholarship fund was created in her honor. Niu admires her connection with students and aspires to live up to her example, hoping that after graduation students will remember him as someone who made a difference in their HNC experience.

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