Joanie Hofmeyr

For the October 2016 edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviews Joan (Joanie) Hofmeyr, a second year vocal arts student from South Africa.  After years of music training in South Africa, Joanie spent a year of high school as an exchange student at the Episcopal Academy ( in Newtown, Pennsylvania.  Her time in Pennsylvania motivated to continue her musical training in the United States.  In her short time at Juilliard, Joanie has been in the chorus for the opera, La Sonnambula, and has participated in Juilliard’s annual Choreo-Comp.  However, her interests extend far beyond being a vocalist.  She is an avid attendee of Workout with Darryl, holds two work-study jobs during the academic year (usher and mailroom clerk), and has served as a Summer Conference Assistant, Audition Monitor, and Orientation Leader.

Listen to Joanie sing her intrepretation of”Estat ai en greu cossirier” written by the Comptesse de Dia.  The recording was used by second year dancer, Moscelyne Parkeharrison, for her solo at the annual Juilliard Dance Workshop Series performance.

When did you begin singing and music training? When did you realize that singing was more than a hobby and something you wanted to pursue professionally?

Music training was like this extension of the Hofmeyr family… it was somehow never a question in my mind. I started taking piano lessons at age 5 I think? (Have very little to show for it on the actual piano now, of course… hopefully that knowledge has been translated theoretically). I also took recorder and violin lessons for a bit – neither of those did it for me.


Joanie at a Open Mic Night

And neither did piano in the end. The singing lessons happened way later. Thinking about it now, I realize that singing was very much my own thing until I got to the age where people started asking me what I wanted to be. I used to write songs with a little recorder that I’d hum tunes into and a book for lyrics. I remember sitting my dad down around that time in my life wanting to discuss the prospect of being a pop star. For him, there would be no discussion about the pop. He said if I was really considering this whole singing thing then I’d have to be serious and realistic about my options: being a pop star would be impossible for someone in my circumstances, and frankly he didn’t see what set me aside from other aspiring pop stars.


Joanie and her best friend, Lucy, playing in their indie-rock band, “Jucy”

Obviously I had a classical voice and he would 100% support my training for that. I knew so little about this “classical” genre except for the fact that it suited my voice and I thought that, once I studied it and got into it, I’d foster a love for it. And so the “real” vocal training began. At one point in ninth grade I was juggling so much – I also took ballet lessons almost all my life up until that point – and school was really becoming demanding. I wanted to prioritize. School was number one for me. I love learning and studying. So I stopped practicing as much for my piano lessons and in my (what turned out to be) last lesson I admitted to my teacher that I identified as a singer, not a pianist; that I’d choose singing in front of people over playing piano in front of them any day of the week and that there was no point in learning to play these hard pieces if I didn’t feel confident enough to perform them for anyone. Whether positive or negative, I think that was a defining moment for whatever my career turns out to be.

See Joanie play the role of Marianne in a student production of an abridged version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White.”

What was your initial reaction to the news that you were accepted to Juilliard?


Joanie at the airport in South Africa on her way to Juilliard for her audition. Her sister gave her this ring for good luck. She wears it to this day.

I thought, “Okay! So now I can die, right?” I wanted it so badly that, honestly, I didn’t think there could be anything more that I wanted to achieve in my life. Ridiculous, right? I mean, of course I had hoped it would happen, but I never allowed myself to
think about or picture my life beyond getting accepted… I think I’ve always thought that thinking I’ve got something before I really have it is bad luck, or that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, so I honestly didn’t want to consider the reality of getting in, in case that would jinx it. So, after the news, I was really surprised to find that life still went on and I was expected to keep living.

After you were admitted to Juilliard, a member of the South African Parliament made a “Motion Without Notice” to congratulate you on your acceptance ( Can you tell our readers about that?

*A Motion Without Notice is an opportunity for Members of the South African Parliament to table matters of local or national significance in Parliament. 

I’m sure this won’t be a new story to anyone because I know almost every student in America has to worry about the cost of education, student loans and debt, etc. The thing about a South African wanting to study in the States is that the cost of her education becomes about 6 times what it would’ve been if she studied in South Africa. I kid you not. After being accepted with a partial scholarship my parents laid out a budget for me: they could – with a stretch – only contribute x amount every year, and if I didn’t make up the difference somehow there was absolutely no way I would be able to come to Juilliard. I can’t live with ”What if’s” – not if I can help it. So, of course, I did whatever I could think of to raise money. The first thing I did was to set up a GoGetFunding account, and, honestly, there were and are so many amazing causes that need support, and I knew that funding my Juilliard education probably wouldn’t be any stranger’s first pick. I knew some crazy serendipitous thing would have to happen… it had happened before in my life when, through some kind of alignment of the stars, I received a partial scholarship to attend the high school of my dreams (Roedean School SA – It was through this school’s partnership with the ASSIST program ( that I did my US exchange, and what, as you mentioned in the introduction, owes in large part to why I am here today. As it turned out, what happened in the case of getting me to Juilliard was directly linked to my connection to my high school. The crazy, serendipitous thing, of course, was not mysterious at all: it was simply a man with a kind, big heart who – for some or other reason – decided that he believed in me. His name is Reverend Dr. Jeremy J. Jacobs (I knew him then as “Father Jeremy”, but he quickly established in our email conversations that ‘Jeremy’ or any kind of variation on ‘J-Dawg’ was to be the only way forward). Every Easter and whenever we had communion in the little chapel at my school Jeremy would conduct these incredibly tasteful, philosophical and (what I considered to be) religiously ambiguous sermons. In Hamburg, South AfricaThe only interactions we had before he decided to help fund my journey to Juilliard was when he shook my hand at the end of these chapel services, as he did every student’s hand who stood in line to thank him. There was never any time to chat to him, so I always made sure to try communicate my appreciation for his evocative words with my eyes. I guess he picked up on that, because just in time for the admission decision Jeremy is emailing me, telling me he happened upon my GoGetFunding page asking for my life story, trying his best to collect as much data as would be useful for him to promote the idea of helping me get to Juilliard to his congregation at St. George’s Anglican Church. And man, did he promote. And he didn’t tell me what he was up to (why did he want to know so much about my background, for example?), he would just say “big things are coming, Joanie”. Until, one day, I performed with the St. George’s Choir and did a couple of solo songs for the congregation, after which he handed me a check with the money I still needed. A few days later he texted and said turn on the TV and watch the live meeting in congress. Jeremy had gotten MP Toby Chance in on my promotional “campaign” as well – all without my having knowledge of it! Let me just make sure to mention I have many, many people to thank for getting me here and through my first year at Juilliard – what I’ve mentioned here is the particularly heart warming story attached to the Motion Without Notice.

Do you have a particular role model or hero (professionally or personally)? If yes, who is this person and why?

I consider the people I have conversations with in my head role models, because I obviously believe they have some further insight into things than I do, and these people most regularly include my dad, mom, brother, and sister. But if we’re going to get particular about my role model then I want to talk about my sister. I think we experience things in much the same way; when we talk about how we felt when a particular thing was happening it always amazes us how similar our answers are…  we joke about how we’re basically the same person, and, of course, we always acknowledge that “well, duh”, because we grew up together with the same frame of reference. This might sound like I’m saying I am my own role model, which, although I do really listen to my own gut more than anyone else’s advice and prefer doing completely my own thing, is not exactly what I’m saying. The defining factor about my admiration for my sister is her wisdom. Perhaps I believe in her wisdom because she’s 2 and a half years older than I am, or perhaps it’s simply a quality she has – perhaps both. Whatever the case, she will always be an embodiment of what I strive to be, and when I find myself in a place in life where I imagine she’s been I feel a real sense of accomplishment.


Joanie with her sister, her hero

What hobbies do you have outside of singing opera?

I enjoy philosophizing with people who care to entertain that. I explore. I exercise. I do yoga.  I walk a lot. I listen to music when I walk – mostly indie-folk. I muse.  I work through my musings by writing things down. I sometimes take photographs with this great second-hand camera that leaks little light spots. I organize and plan and write to-do lists or suggestions to myself for what I could do. I spend so much time doing this that I really do consider it to be a hobby. I go to coffee shops. I spend a lot of time seeking out comfort and pleasure.

Watch Joanie’s final art project from her senior year of high school.

A silly question for you-if you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?

I’d love to be a bear, I think, because I would love to be able to hibernate. Can you imagine being able to just shut down for a significant amount of time knowing that you’d be able to wake up when the time was right – when you felt you could handle life again?

You are originally from a small town in South Africa and later moved to Johannesburg. Can you tell us a little bit about your hometown and Johannesburg?

I grew up with a dam in front of my house. My brother, sister and I (and whomever of my friends were lucky enough to be over at my house when my brother felt inspired) would make movies; sometimes “Survivor” episodes out by the dam. We had so much space. Some weekends my family and I played soccer in a small open field right down the street from our house, and other times we’d go mountain biking on the paths on this mountain which was barely 10 minutes away from our house. I often rode my bike to my friend’s house or to ballet and tap class. So even though I loved this place, the move to Johannesburg was very welcome in my life, because I used to love change and excitement (now I’m not so sure…). Johannesburg is wonderful. It’s an underrated city and I really think you gotta to live there to fall in love with it – I did. I fell in love with the drives home from school and the Friday night trips to the mall with my family to watch the latest “Cinema nouveau” movies. For the first time since living in the States I’m allowing myself to miss incredible things like that about my life in South Africa. Man o man have I been fortunate.


Joanie with her family

If a friend was to tell you that he/she was going to South Africa for a trip, what are the top three pieces of advice you would give your friend (i.e. places to go, foods to try, etc.)?

As I’ve mentioned, if you’re able to, go live in Johannesburg for at least year. If you’re going to do the touristy thing then I’d say drive along the Garden Route ( – it’s a coastal route and it is so incredibly beautiful. I’d definitely camp, and hike anywhere in the Drakensburg (, and swim in the gorge pools I find there. And definitely drive everywhere. The different landscapes are things to be experienced.

In your experience, what are some common misconceptions that Americans have of South Africa?

Americans, in my experience, have pretty solid conceptions of South Africa. People who have asked me – in earnest – things like why, if I’m from Africa, am I white, were not Americans if I recall. Unless we’re talking about, like, seven-year-old Americans. Like a young girl I know who once said, “South Africa must be so much better than America, because you live with lions and monkeys and zebra.” (Which is, of course, true.)

What were some misconceptions you had about the U.S. before coming to Pennsylvania as a high school exchange student?


Joanie when she was an exchange student in Pennsylvania

Oof. I think I thought – and this disillusionment is still something I’m working through – people here had things more figured out. I think the fact that American commercialism is so real that kids in South Africa are decorating fake conifers for Christmas when it’s 90 degrees outside had something to do with the creation of the misconception. But I will definitely admit that I am mostly to blame for creating the misconception all by myself.

What do you like most about living in NYC? What do you like least?

There are things I think I’ll always like and things I’ll always dislike. But then the rest really depends on the state of mind I’m in from moment to moment. I think I’ll always like how I can “happen upon” things – especially at times when I most need it.  I like how I can be on the subway with no expectation of anything out of the ordinary happening, and then I hear a child say something really interesting to his/her dad, and then I smile, and am happy that for a moment my attention is on something other than the ramblings of my thoughts.

But then I can be minding my own business at a coffee shop, doing my theory homework, and a random lady who has clearly made it her goal to completely ruin someone’s day will sit right across from me, notice that I’m doing music theory and say “Music is dead. You’ll never be able to make a living as a musician.” After being polite and listening to her pessimism for way too long I get up to go, planning to have the last say about how I think I’ll be able to figure things out for myself she just keeps going – “There’s nothing to figure out!” she says, and then for a moment I hate everything about New York. Those moments are no fun in the moment. There are also some things that are just always going to annoy me – no matter what state of mind I’m in. Like the unbearably loud fire truck and police car sirens. The intensity of those sirens really are a little ridiculous. I always plug my ears shut when they pass, so when, for example, I’m having a conversation with someone as one passes I always awkwardly have to pause the conversation and look around or make ugly faces to indicate my annoyance. I guess I both love and dislike the fact that in New York where I don’t have car windows to hide behind when I want to get from comfortable and familiar place A to comfortable and familiar place B my experience is vulnerable to being hi-jacked by other people’s experience. This city causes a lot of anxiety, but it is simultaneously (and strangely), to me, its own cure.

You previously told OIA that you have “changed quite significantly since coming here a year ago.” In what ways have you changed?

I am now a lot less sure of everything, really. I’m actually not sure of anything. I’m amazed at how I wanted something so much a year ago that I came all this way to get it. Like, thank god, of course, because without that certainty I had I couldn’t possibly be where I am, going through whatever it is I’m going through right now. And I’m grateful for anything that gets me closer to the truth. A year ago I wanted to be an opera singer, and then I felt very driven towards theater, so I did an acting Summer Intensive at the Atlantic Acting School ( and that decision was quite a big deal because I wanted that so badly that I chose it above going home, and I haven’t been home for 13 months now.


Joanie with classmates at the Atlantic Theater Acting Summer Intensive

Then, two weeks ago, I started my second year with a new purpose: I am going to be the next singer who graduates from the Juilliard Vocal Arts program and goes into musical theater on Broadway! Then, for my first English Diction class of the semester I had to choose a song to sing by an American composer and I discovered Copland, Barber, and Kurt Weill, and I gotta tell ya, some of those pieces really get me excited… so who knows? All I (sort of) know right now is that the kind of artist I want to be doesn’t exactly fit into anything I’ve seen so far… a lot of things inspire and excite me, and I’m able to hear, see or feel something and know exactly whether that thing evokes a “yum. Yes.” or a “no thanks” in terms of what I want to pursue artistically. In terms of my place in the world: It seems I’m only just starting feel – let alone understand – what it is to be a human being. So my “place” anywhere is yet to be invented. The good news? I’m an artistic human being, so showing up to invent is my forte.

Watch Joanie sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables.  She made this facebook post at 2AM in response to the news of the death of Alton Sterling.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?

Yes there is. I might start doing my own personal “day of silence” a few times a month, and I would like the records to show that. I happened upon Ulysses S. Grant’s mausoleum the day after I thought of taking a vow of silence (among other things he established the National Park Service. Whoa right?), and above the entrance the words “Let Us Have Peace” were carved, and I thought “Let us indeed.” So hopefully one day you will see a silent Joanie walking down the hallways, and hopefully that will create peace in our Juilliard microcosm.





Ruth Reinhardt

For June 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Ruth Reinhardt (  A graduate of Juilliard’s Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting Program, Ruth  was recently named Assistant Conductor with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra ( and is the current Conducting Fellow with the Seattle Symphony ( for the 2015-2016 season.  Ruth began her musical education at the age of six studying the violin in her hometown of Saarbrücken, Germany.  In 2004, she began taking private conducting lessons which brought her to the Zurich University of the Arts, Leipzig University of the Arts, Tanglewood Music Center, and the Juilliard School.

Ruth Reinhardt on the steps outside Alice Tully Hall

You began your musical education studying violin, and you also have instrumental training in oboe and piano.  What made you decide to focus on conducting rather than instrumental performance?

Actually it was entirely by coincidence. I loved performing (chamber music and in orchestras), but I always wanted to know more than just my own part. I composed too, so I wanted to understand why certain places sounded so incredible and how a composer could communicate all these feelings. Also it always troubled me when I was young and playing in my quartet, that we would all have many ideas and even though they were all valid, they didn’t fit together and didn’t create one coherent concept.

Somehow I never made the conclusion that maybe conducting might the thing I’m looking for. Then once I caught a bad cold during an orchestra project and couldn’t play oboe for a day, so the conductor asked (more as a joke) if instead I wanted to conduct. I did and suddenly the world opened up that I’d been looking for.

You have done a considerable amount of community engagement work including acting as a teaching fellow for Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program (MAP) as well as composing and conducting children’s operas in Germany and Switzerland.  What do you like most about working as a teaching artist to children? What is the greatest challenge?

I believe that for all of us there was this one moment in our early life when we started being obsessed about music, somehow feeling how “big” it is and is what it can give us. For me this was when I got to be as a 9-year old on stage, performing in Verdi’s Otello in the children’s choir.

So, I somehow want to give this spark to as many young people as possible. I don’t think they  have to become musicians but I would love if they got a glimpse of how great our art form is.

Ruth conducting in Tanglewood

While earning your Master of Music degree in Conducting at the Juilliard School, you studied with the world renowned conductor and New York Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert.  What was that experience like?  What is the most important lesson you learned from Mr. Gilbert when you were under his tutelage?

It was really wonderful studying with Alan Gilbert – he’s just the best! He always challenged us a lot, in different ways, from the amount of repertoire to throwing many things at us, but somehow he always gave me the feeling he knew I could do it, that I just had to find the right button. His incredibly subtle rhythmic awareness and how to find a connection to the sound of an orchestra with our hands. That’s really the Holy Grail of conducting; how to change the sound of an orchestra just with out hands alone.

Can you describe your experience as the conducting fellow with the Seattle Symphony?

My experience in Seattle was very great, though it does rain a lot! The orchestra is a ideal mix of being very very good and exceedingly musical and at the same time very open minded and easy to work with. They were very supportive, which isn’t always the case with orchestras and young conductors. In general in the whole organisation there is a very positive atmosphere, so I absolutely loved my time there.

_DSC2639As you are aware, there is a disproportionate number of male conductors to female conductors. A list compiled by at the end of 2014, stated that of the world’s top 150 conductors, only five were women. Why do you think this is?

Firstly I think that now there are many young female conductors but as it takes at least thirty years for a conductor to “ripen/mature”, we’ll only see them in “top conductors statistics” in some decades.

More importantly though, I believe that there are so few top female conductors because there were (and in some places still are) so many “gate keepers”, who made it very hard for women to get through. Those could mean being accepted into programs, being shortlisted for auditions etc. Unfortunately even at Juilliard there wasn’t always such a supportive environment for women conductors – Marin Alsop told me she was never accepted on the conducting programme here, despite auditioning a number of times and having the backing of Bernstein…

In a controversial 2013 interview with the French radio station, France Musique, the director of the Paris Conservatory, Bruno Mantovani, stated that the lack of top female conductors was due to the profession being too demanding for women.  To quote, Mantovani said “the profession of a conductor is a profession that is particularly physically testing, sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect – conducting, taking a plane, taking another plane, conducting again. It is quite challenging.”  How would you respond to this comment or others like it?

In a time where women work as astronauts, in the army and in the fire service this statement is so ridiculous that it doesn’t even deserve to be  answered. I think this statement reveals more about Mantovani than about his subject.

What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing a career as a conductor?

If you HAVE to do it, then just do it! I would  give the same advice I give to any young conductor regardless of gender: there are tons of reasons people will give you why you can’t be a conductor, from that you have the wrong family background to your physique. But if you want to be a conductor badly enough, and are willing to take the risk of not having a super successful career, then you do it. But if you can imagine doing something else with your life then you might be better off with that.

Music for a Sutainable Planet

The Kronos Quartet with the Æon Music Ensemble and Æon Singers, playing Vladislav Boguinia’s “Rise,” at the Symphony Space in New York on Sept. 23, 2015. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

This interview series is called Eye on Culture, so let’s discuss culture.  You were born and raised in Germany and prior to coming to NYC, you studied/worked in Switzerland and the Czech Republic.  Did you experience any “culture shock” when you moved to New York after living/working in three different countries? If so, in what ways?

To be honest, I can’t really remember since when I got to New York I was immediately so busy that there wasn’t much room to think of anything else! I would say though that it took time to get used to the pace of the city, with everything happening so fast and the city never being at rest. It is hard to allow oneself some rest if the surrounding never stops.

After acclimating to NewHiking in Canada York life, did you experience culture shock again when you moved to Seattle? If so, what surprised you most about the culture of the northwest United States compared to the northeast? 
Luckily I didn’t feel a culture shock at all when going to Seattle, but I was surprised by how calm and laid back it felt after NYC.

When you are not focused on your career, what do you like toSledging in Switzerland do for fun?  Do you have any hobbies outside of music? 

I really love mountain sports, hiking, skiing, and I love to travel and get to know different places and cultures. But mostly I love having some time with my partner, James (also a conductor!), being at home in Berlin, cooking nice meals and playing pool.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?

Hard question! Ten years ago I could have exactly told you where I want to be in five, ten, twenty years, but now I realised that despite one has a plan, life takes you always down another route (usually a good one!), so I don’t have so clear plans anymore. I’m lucky that I get to make music with some wonderful people – I hope to be doing that for many decades yet!


Fiona Last

For May 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Fiona Last, a first year oboist in the Historical Performance program ( and OIA work-study student. Originally from Dibden Purlieu, a village outside of Southampton, England, Fiona earned a degree in Arabic and Ethnomusicology from the School of Oriental and African Studies ( in London.  During her undergraduate studies, Fiona studied abroad at the University of Damascus in Syria for a year.

Fiona has been studying music in the United States since 2009; first at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University (, followed by the Yale School of Music (, and now at The Juilliard School.

Fiona Last HeadshotEye on Culture has not featured a Historical Performance student before.  Can you tell our readers a bit about the HP program at Juilliard?  How would you say it differs from other programs?

I imagine one of the main differences between the HP program and others at Juilliard is that we function as one studio despite comprising many different instruments, and we are all graduate students. There are only 24 of us, and so we form a sense of ensemble very quickly. We still have to pass or take the Juilliard history, theory, and ear training prerequisites, but we also have our own history classes and a symposium with guest lecturers, as well as a continuo class (where the non-keyboard instruments learn to realize figured bass). We have incredibly high-level guest conductors such as Masaaki Suzuki and Jordi Savall leading each concert, and we play music and instruments from various time periods – for example, this semester I played concerts on alto shawm, baroque oboe, and classical oboe in the space of two months. It’s a very intense and immersive program, but it’s great preparation for what (hopefully!) awaits us outside of Juilliard.

What are the benefits and challenges to playing a baroque oboe compared to a modern oboe?

I think the answer is the same for the challenges as it is for the benefits – you are playing a much more fundamental instrument. Baroque and modern oboe aren’t separate beasts – they’re just at different stages in their evolution. Unfortunately a lot of discussions about historical performance or historical instruments involve questions of superiority, and I don’t think that should have anything to do with it. We’re all trying to mine as much as possible from the music we play, however we choose to do that.  I still love playing and listening to the modern oboe, and far from it being the choice between the two that some people imagine, learning the baroque oboe actually made me a much better modern oboe player, because you have to focus so much on the fundamentals. There’s no automation to the instrument, so your air and the evenness of your fingers are all you have. It’s extremely different from playing the modern oboe where if your set up is functioning well, a nice even scale comes out over multiple octaves, no questions asked. That’s the starting point for your practice and music making. On baroque oboe though, the starting line is a few steps back from that. Nothing is in tune without work, high notes don’t speak without work – obviously you get to the point where these things are second nature and the instrument feels as natural as the modern version, but an awareness of that scarier bottom line is always there, and that’s definitely the challenge! But, there are great musical benefits. You can shade the intonation of notes based on any given harmony, the reed accepts articulation in much more varied ways, the incredible amount of air needed can give amazing color palette. It’s a really tough instrument but it can teach you so much about the music you’re playing, and bring a special kind of life to it.

When did you begin playing music? Have you always played the oboe or did you start studying a different instrument? If so, what made you change?

I changed schools when I was 7, and my new school offered a year of free lessons on the violin, the piano, or the flute, and I chose violin. When the year was up I decided I wanted to play something more unusual, and I walked past a room where a girl (I still remember her name was Melanie Clegg) was practicing the oboe. My parents tried very hard to convince me that what I’d seen was in fact a clarinet but I was determined!

Performing at Yale's Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut

You are currently a work study student in the Office of International Advisement and will continue to be for part of the summer. What do you like most about working in OIA? What is your least favorite (you can be honest)?

We share a space with the Office of Community Engagement and the Dean of Student Affairs, and it’s a very fun and collegial environment. This isn’t really a tough downside to have but Cory’s unending stash of candy is very dangerous…

When you are not playing music or working one of your many on-campus jobs, what do you like to do for fun?Halloween concert

I’ve actually been feeling really bad about my lack of answer to questions like that! I enjoy walking, cooking (and eating), and I used to do a lot of Bikram yoga…I really should find a hobby! I would like to spend more time outdoors, and rediscover reading, which I used to do voraciously but don’t seem to any more. Check back with me when I’m out of school!

Do you have a hidden talent or a cool party trick? If so, what is it?

I can’t think of anything! I can do an impression of the lady squirrel from the movie The Sword in the Stone…the party would have to be going pretty slowly for that to be needed.

What is you biggest pet peeve?

People saying “I could care less…” – that really bugs me! The point is the double negative….that you in fact couldn’t care less! Pretty much anything grammatical, I’m a big language nerd. It makes me very popular…

This series is called Eye on Culture, so let’s talk about the culture in which you were raised. How would you describe your hometown and its culture?

I grew up in a village called Dibden Purlieu (I usually just tell people I’m from London, where I used to live, or Southampton, which is the nearest city, to save American giggles at the name). It’s on the south coast of the UK and on the edge of a big national park called the New Forest. It wasn’t quite as idyllic-country-village as some of the places actually in the forest and I’m not sure I can identify any major cultural traits but as somewhere to grow up it was pretty well placed between city and country.

Before coming to the U.S., you earned a degree from the School of African and Oriental Studies which included year abroad in Syria.  Can you tell us a little about the school and your experience in the Middle East?

My first degree was a BA in Arabic and Ethnomusicology at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. It’s a really small Syria -- Aphameastudent population, and the school is on the corner of Russell Square in London, where the British Museum is. As the name suggests, it’s a pretty niche institution, and one I’m really glad I went to at a formative age because it’s so diverse. The university system in the UK is a little different, you mainly take classes for the whole year instead of by the semester, and you only take maybe three or four, all specific to your degree. My core curriculum was intensive Arabic language classes but I also got to study classical Arabic literature, and I took a year of Mandarin Chinese in addition to core studies in ethnomusicology. We were also required to spend a year abroad – mine was in Syria studying at the University of Damascus, where we wrote our dissertations in Arabic (mine was on music in Sufism and how that fits into the larger body of Islamic thinking on music).

Syria-  Aphamea

As you know, the situation in Syria is dire.  By studying abroad in Syria, the conflict hits closer to home than for the average Westerner.  What are your thoughts?

It’s a little strange talking about Syria now, especially to say what a great year I had. I also would never want to sound like I was trying to insert myself into the drama of that situation in any way. It sounds ridiculous to say, given what is currently happening, but when I was there, there was a sense of cautious optimism. It still wasn’t what you would call an open political climate, but people were I think quietly hopeful that Bashar al-Assad would prove a better leader than his father, Hafez had been.

For us as students it was wonderful. Damascus seemed an open and religiously tolerant city, and it has such an incredible and rich history, the layers of which were openly visible. Syria has (tragically now had, in most cases) mosques, cities, and archaeological monuments and ruins to rival any other Middle Eastern country, but for various reasons it was only just beginning to be on the tourist trail. That meant you had full access to these sites for next to nothing, and with barely anyone there compared to somewhere like Giza or Petra. Cheap buses meant so many travel opportunities; we could spend weekends in Latakia, Aleppo, Beirut, or take trips to Jordan and Egypt.  I spent a week in an 11th-century monastery that is built into the mountains outside Damascus, and where anyone can stay if they help with the daily chores – you can show up and leave when you wish. Syrian people are so incredibly hospitable, and the food is amazing. Oh, and it snows in the winter, a lot! I hope none of that sounds reductive – it’s hard to capture the nuances of a country like that without sounding like you’re trying to make political or cultural statements, which I’m anxious not to try and do in this forum!

You have been living in the US for a while now. What do you miss most about the UK? Is there anything you don’t miss?

What I miss most is definitely my family. My brother and I were very lucky in that our parents travelled a lot with us, and we were raised to want to do interesting things in different places – between us we’ve lived in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tanzania and Uganda (and the US of course), and my brother currently studies in Sweden and is about to go to Ghana for six months. None of us would have it any other way, but of course it is hard being so far away from family sometimes. That said, it does keep things fresh and I’m always glad and excited to go home! I don’t know that I want to single out anything I don’t miss, but I will say there is a sense of space and breathing room in this country that I didn’t feel so much in the UK.

When you first came to the US to study, what part of US culture most surprised you? What took you awhile to get used to? Is there anything that you still struggle with?

What’s interesting about US culture is that even being from a country with its own sizeable [English-language] film and television output, I still knew pretty much what to expect here from what I’d seen in movies and on TV. Because for me there were no massive language or cultural shifts, things that seemed stranger were the little details – street signs or license plates for instance. Everything is essentially the same but just a little bit different – and what’s funny is that that now works in reverse when I go home. Also size – US cities are big in a way that UK cities aren’t. I first lived in Philadelphia, the center city of which isn’t huge compared to NYC or Chicago, but everything is still so much higher and wider. I also wasn’t aware until I got here quite how much politics is tied up with religion, culture, and intellectualism in a way that it just isn’t at home.

And I still struggle with the fact that you guys don’t understand the appeal of Marmite.


What do you think you want to do after you graduate? Do you have a “dream job” in mind?

This is the fourth degree I will have graduated from, and the first one I won’t be following immediately with more school! My hope is to set myself up for an interesting and productive OPT year freelancing, during which I can spend some serious time thinking about what I derive motivation and enjoyment from, what my long-term priorities are, and how I can turn those into something approaching the “dream job.” A teacher at Yale used to talk about a ‘portfolio career,’ which is an idea that really appeals to me. I have degrees in Arabic, modern oboe and Historical Performance, I’ve studied I think 8 languages to varying levels, and I really enjoy writing and editing – somewhere in there is a really fulfilling career! I just need a little space to find it.

Jessica Moss

For February 2016’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Jessica Moss, an award-winning playwright from Toronto, Canada.   Jessica is a first year Artist Diploma student in the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program (  Her works have won many awards including the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festival Best New Play Award for her play CamBaby, and the 2013 Fringe Festival Patron’s Pick Award, Best of Fringe Award, and the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship for her one-woman show Polly Polly.  She has also been recognized by the Playwrights Guild of Canada and during the RBC Tarragon Emerging Playwriting Competition (  Additionally, in 2013, she was one of NOW Magazine‘s Artists of the Year.  In her interview with OIA, Jessica shares not only her passion for playwriting, but also her love for acting, dance, improv comedy, and Canadian potato chips, and her experience dealing with the subtleties between Canadian and U.S. culture.   

Jessica Moss

Eye on Culture has not featured a student in Juilliard’s Playwrights Program before. Can you tell us a little about it and what attracted you to this specific program?

The Playwrights Program is an Artist Diploma program and part of the drama department. It’s a fellowship led by Marsha Norman and Chris Durang. There are ten of us currently in the program, and we write plays and bring them in and read them and talk about them, and occasionally the actors read them for us and then we talk about them more. It’s a very small and focused program and the most supportive academic environment I have ever been a part of. The other nine writers are the most talented people I know, and I remain in awe that they let me come from learn from them.

I very much wanted to be in New York: I had visited and come down to train briefly before and it’s an exciting place to be if you love theatre. I have a B.A. and then did conservatory style training for acting, so I had done a lot of school already, and wasn’t so interested in doing something where I had to take theatre history classes again, and do lots of writing assignments to try different styles. This program has a lot of freedom in it: there is a lot of time to write. And Chris Durang and Marsha Norman were very big influences on me (honestly, on almost every theatre artist I know), so to get to be in a room with them was a bit unreal…

Are there specific themes you like to explore in your writing? If so, what are they? What draws you to explore these particular themes in your pieces?

I think that everything I write is a comedy, and I think loneliness is at the centre of everything I write. My ideal piece of theatre would be where the audience is laughing along and then spontaneously weeps. And then laughs again. I really like dance numbers: I feel like I sit through a lot of plays silently hoping that the whole cast will dance together! And then I get afraid that they will dance into the audience and there will be audience participation and I will have to dance in front of everyone and that is my nightmare, but also my secret ambition.

Polly Poster Just Polly

I really love the limitations of theatre and the freedom that’s allowed by these limitations. You can’t do everything: so you can do anything. One of my favourite theatre things ever is in the notes to Angels in America, Tony Kushner writes (in regards to how to rig the angel’s flying entrance and how to do the other effects in the play): ‘The moments of magic…are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing’. I love that: maybe it’s good if the wires show. I like the idea that things can be epic and intimate at the same time: that you can see the actor making the effect, and it can still be transformative. That the audience participates in the illusion and helps the performers make it. I feel that’s what I’m chasing.

You are at Juilliard for playwriting, but you have an extensive acting resume as well. Do you have a favorite role, and if so, what makes this particular role stand out?

I did a production of Alice in Wonderland in Sudbury, Ontario, which is a mining city about five hours north of Toronto. It was December, and the snow came down and just did not stop. We did two shows a day for school kids that were bussed in from all over northern Ontario, many of whom had never seen a play before. Our calls were 8.30 a.m., and I had to walk from my billet and it was so freezing. In my day, I literally had to walk every morning in the snow to get to work! BUT! I played Alice’s sister, the Mouse, the Caterpillar, the Duchess, a talking Tiger Lily, part of the Jabberwocky, and The Queen of Hearts. The Queen of Hearts! She was so much fun. And backstage we were just running around and opening doors and moving the set and tearing from costume to costume and it was a total theatrical joy.

LDN magnifying eyeI’ve written two solo shows for myself, and performing those has been the scariest, most sickening thing, but also incredibly rewarding. I created those shows physically, working by myself in front of a mirror to find the physical language and the running back to my computer and writing the lines to go with it. Throughout the whole process, I kept telling myself, ‘You wrote yourself into this mess, now act your way out of it’. I wrote those parts to do things that I loved doing and do things that I never got to do onstage, and so they were very ‘me’, and also very not: they were both what I knew I could do and what I didn’t think I ever could. I felt so exposed doing them, but it was incredibly gratifying.

But, oh man, when you do a one-woman show that you wrote and produced on your own, you sit in that dressing room before you go out and there is just no one else to blame if things go badly, and in those moments, you are looking into the abyss, and the abyss is looking right back and saying, ‘Don’t you mess this up, Jessica Moss. Don’t you mess this up’.

If you had to choose, would you rather write plays or act in them?

Let’s not kid anyone, I’m just going to cheat at this question and say both, and also produce them. I have a touch of Nick Bottom disease: I just want to do the whole thing.

Last semester you started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens’ Brigade ( in New York City. Can you tell us a little about UCB and your experience with the classes?

Jess!lI was doing improv on and off for years in Toronto and it’s just so fun and a great way to write and to practice being onstage. I really think it’s an incredible artform that cuts to the quick about what’s great about theatre: imagination, freedom, specificity, humour, commitment. I love that you build words out of nothing and immediately destroy them. I have really liked going to UCB and doing their method, which is a pretty specific thing all based around an improv format called the Harold. I really hope to keep continue working with them and exploring other improv groups in New York.

Okay, let’s see if those improv classes have paid off. Tell us a joke (clean joke). One, Two, Three, go…

How do you think the unthinkable?
With an ithe-berg.

I love that joke! I have a slight lisp so it is very personally relevant to me.

When you are not writing or acting, what do you like to do in your free time?

Looking at writing and acting and thinking about it, mostly. I am trying to explore New York as much as I can. I used to bake a lot and I’m pretty good at it, but my oven in my apartment doesn’t work too well, so I’ve just been looking at a lot of pictures of cake on the Internet.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about where in Canada you grew up? Do you feel that this environment has influenced you as a writer and performing artist? If so, how?

I’m from the west end of Toronto, an area called Roncesvalles. There is a great line on 30 Rock where a reclusive character played by Steve Martin says ‘Toronto is just like New York, but without all the stuff!’, and that is kind of unfair and kind of really true. But it’s my home and I’m very devoted to it, although I do not care about our hockey team.

I think one thing that has been important to me is that Toronto was a big filming destination for movies: but it never played itself. It’s just a big city so it plays Boston, or New York, or wherever. And I always really wanted to see stories that happened in Toronto, so most of my work has been set there, and referencing very Toronto/Canadian things.

Canada has so much influence coming up from the States, but also over from England. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of being able to create our own national voice (particularly in film and TV, where Canadian content kind of gets drowned under bigger American stuff), but it also means there’s kind of a cool melding of the best parts of both worlds. And, there’s a lot of French and European influence coming from Quebec, which is pretty amazing. I went to acting school in Quebec and took class in French, and did a lot of Lecoq-based jeu, Gaulier clown, physical theatre….so there are a lot of really wonderful things that you can be exposed to up there, and I think a lot of that ended up being in the things I aspire to make.

I saw this cartoon recently (below), and it made me chuckle, but do you think there is some truth behind it? Do you sometimes experience this sense of familiarity in NYC but simultaneously, a somewhat “strange” feeling?

cartoonYeah, we are different and the same. It’s weird! I really feel New Yorkers are the greatest, and especially being a part of the school I have felt very welcome. But every now and then there will be a little difference, or I won’t know about something everyone is laughing about, and I remember that I come from a whole other country.

Although home is not too far away, what part of Canadian culture do you miss most while you are in the U.S.?

Canada has better potato chips. There. I said it.

Really the only thing that bugs me about New York so far is how fast people are to put things in plastic bags. Back home we were charged for plastic bags in stores for a while, in an effort to reduce waste, so I (and most people I know) got into the habit of carrying reusable bags around, and trying to not use plastic bags. And here I feel I am constantly saying, ‘PLEASEI’MSORRYIDON’TNEEDABAG’ very quickly and loudly and irritating every retail person I engage with. But it doesn’t work, and I am quickly losing the plastic bag fight, they are taking over my apartment, please help me.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I’m so grateful to be a part of the Juilliard community, to be able to live in New York and be surrounded by so many dedicated and exciting artists. It’s the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I am so deeply in love with (and endlessly frustrated by) the theatre, and so it’s incredible to go to school in a place where that love is nurtured, and believed in, and then to walk down Broadway and see that it can be made into a reality, that a passion can be a career, a way of living. I’m so lucky. I’m just a lucky little Canadian. (Sorry).

Click the play button to watch highlights from Jessica Moss’ one-woman show, Polly Polly; winner of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival’s Patron’s Pick Award, Best of Fringe Award, and the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship.  Polly Polly was also nominated for Best One Person Show at the Canadian Comedy Awards.

Note: This video contains some adult language.





Michelle Lim

For the first Eye on Culture of 2016, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Michelle Lim.  Michelle is a third year dance student from Singapore, a country commonly described as a place where “East meets West.” In addition to discussing her cultural background and her passion for dance, choreography, photography, and videography, Michelle shares her experience as a Juilliard student leader and provides advice for potential applicants.

Interested in applying for a leadership position?  Positions available include Orientation Leader, Orientation Chair, Programming Assistant, Diversity Advocate, Colloquium Peer Leader, Resident Assistant, and Hall Coordinator.  Applications are due no later than Friday, January 29th.
Michelle Lim

You were an orientation leader two years ago and an orientation chair this past year. What made you want to be a student leader at Juilliard? How would you describe this experience? What did you gain by being a student leader?

My main motivation for becoming a student leader stemmed from my want to get to know the incoming students in the school. We are all so busy practicing our craft that it’s so hard to meet everyone despite being in such a small school! Coming from a different country, I remember how I was afraid of not knowing anyone and being alone in such a foreign place. Orientation was a time of uncertainty and fear but also a time that I made my best friends in this school, many of whom are outside of the dance division. I don’t know if I would’ve met as many people if I missed out on orientation!

I wanted to continue meeting all the amazing talent that’s in this school and help anyone who may be needing help in transitioning into this crazy city that is New York. Being an orientation leader my sophomore year, allowed me to usher in the incoming class and get to know people from all the different divisions in an environment that was fun, new, and exciting. After that, I was hooked! I became one of the orientation chairs my junior year and it was incredibly fulfilling sharing the Juilliard experience.

Being a student leader, I got to collaborate with my schoolmates on a common platform outside our disciplines to create an experience for other people. It helped me work on my public speaking skills and my overall confidence in myself. It also allowed me to work and have a closer relationship with the staff in the school, and it’s just so wonderful creating friendships with people as we all work towards a common goal.

With fellow students in the Dance program

What is your advice to students who may be hesitant to apply for a student leadership position but would like to develop their leadership skills and/or be more involved in the Juilliard community?

My biggest advice is to know that there’s nothing to lose, regardless of the reasons behind that hesitation. If it helps, ask a friend to apply for a leadership position along with you! You can even ask someone who is a current leader to help you. Whether you believe it or not, the application process is actually really fun. Do not let the process intimidate you–you got into Juilliard! That’s an audition much harder than a leadership application (haha).

These skills that you will obtain from the leadership experience is for you and it will take you further than your college career. There’s so much to gain from the first step of application to the execution of the position. Taking on a leadership role in school is a way to practice these skills in a safe, supportive environment where mistakes are times of learning and achievements are times of celebration 🙂

How old were you when you began dancing? When did you decide that dancing was more than a hobby and a potential career?

I started dancing when I was 3 years old. My parents enrolled me in a little studio in a mall, so I went through the baby ballet route. My tIMG_7837eacher recommended that I move to a better dance studio called the Singapore Ballet Academy (, and I started taking the Royal Academy of Dance graded examinations there.

When I was 11, my ballet teacher at the school, Mei Sing Cheah, told my dad about this new arts school that was opening called School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA – She was appointed as, and is still currently, the Head of Dance in the school. It was new and huge departure from the “traditional” schooling system that most Singaporeans go through and that I would be part of the pioneering batch. My dad told me about it and I remember really wanting to go to SOTA.

My dad told me that if I wanted to leave the regular schooling system and pursue dance, that I had to commit to it and I did. The school opened in 2008, and I left the secondary school I was already in. I graduated with the pioneering class in 2012, and now I’m here 🙂



You attended the School for the Arts in Singapore before coming to Juilliard. Tell our readers a little bit about the school, and how did attending it prepare you for Juilliard’s Dance Division?

SOTA is Singapore’s first pre-tertiary arts school that caters to 13-18 year old students and offers training in Dance, Film, Music, Theater and Visual Arts. It also places emphasis on the Integrated Arts and Literary Arts. Students who attend the school also have to study the Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, English Literature, their Mother Tongue languages (mine was Mandarin) and Mathematics alongside the arts. In the final 2 years, students have to undergo the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) certificate, and in recent years the student have the option to take the IB Career-related Programme.

I gained so much while I was in this school. Having to go through the IBDP examinations, I was exposed very early on to subjects like Anthropology and Theory of Knowledge that aided in the development of critical thinking. It was very hard to jungle academics and the arts at the same time. I feel as though SOTA helped me become very independent and a more consistent hard worker.

I was exposed to dance styles such as the Graham and Limón techniques that is unavailable outside of SOTA at the pre-tertiary level. I was also exposed to a lot of ballet repertoire as well as engaging in the creation process a work. My modern dance teacher, Silvia Yong, gave me opportunities outside of school at her husband’s company called The Human Expression Dance Company ( Here I was a part of the Second Company, an apprentice in the Main Company, as well as Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Production Manager for a few shows. This definitely allowed me to have experience in the professional dance scene in Singapore, as well as gave me opportunity to gain experience in production.

I feel that my overall experience definitely helped me to become more versatile as a mover as we had to juggle ballet, modern, repertoire as well as dancing in the choreographic style of any newly created work. The sheer workload that the IBDP examinations had to offer definitely trained me to better manage pressure and time.

You were a choreographer for the fall 2015 Choreo/Comp. What was that experience like?

It was tough but so incredibly fulfilling! First of all, congratulations to all the choreographers, composers, and dancers! It was such an amazing show and I’m so incredibly proud of everyone.

It was a crazy journey for all of us. I was working with Michael Seltenrich, who is also an international student here. It was really difficult finding a language that worked for the both of us. It’s always a challenge wheIMG_0520n two artistic minds are working together! We had a central idea with a lot of conflicts the approach to it. We definitely worked it out in the end and I feel that the dance and music gelled in very nicely with each other.

I had a very supportive cast of dancers despite all the blows we had to take. I’m incredibly blessed to have them (Taylor LaBruzzo, Guy Levi, Miranda Wienecke and Alex Soulliere), as well as Dana Pajarillaga and Daniel Ching for stepping in. Everyone was so supportive and open to all the ideas I brought to the studio.

If you had to choose, would you rather choreograph or dance?

I don’t know if I could answer that! Both choreography and dancing have their special places in my heart, I don’t know if I prefer either one of them more at this point.

Other than dance, you have a passion for photography and videography. How did this passion develop? What do you like about being behind the camera?

I love watching YouTube videos and looking [at] beautiful photos on the internet. Good music while surfing Tumblr and watching Youtube videos was something I loved to do in my free time back in high school. I love how people can create realities out of everyday things and make me see the world through their eyes. I guess this is also why I love choreography. I love creating new content and sharing it with people.

I have never had any form of training in photography and videography. One of my older brothers is a freelance photographer and videographer, and I would watch him edit his work and he would share little tips and tricks that he had with me. Slowly I began to take photographs and film videos for fun. I love capturing and sharing what I see, and I especially love it when my work makes people happy or helps someone in anyway.

You will graduate in May 2017. What would you like to do after you complete your degree?

This interview is filled with loaded questions! haha. Well, I’d definitely want to give myself some time to relax before I start working. I also want to travel and see dance from different cultures and experience those cultures. Ideally, I’d love to dance with a company that would allow me to grow as choreographer. I also see freelancing as an option. At this point, I’m open to whatever the world has to offer me 🙂


This interview series is called Eye on Culture, so let’s talk about the culture in which you were raised. Singapore is considered to have a very unique and diverse culture.  In a few short sentences, how would you describe Singaporean culture to readers who do not know much about the country?

Singapore is hot and humid; its summer all year round and it rains a lot. It’s actually pretty similar to New York City in many ways. It’s a melting pot of cultures and people come from everywhere in the world for business or just to have fun. It’s pretty crowded in the city, with at least 5 million people on a tiny island (size ref. to Manhattan below). [The population of Manhattan is approximately 1.6 million and the population of NYC in total is about 8.5 million.]


A lot of people live in apartment style housing and it’s pretty easy to get to anywhere you want in the country. The food is incredible and affordable. We don’t have any natural resources so most of our things are imported. Our education is pretty top notch. It is also incredibly safe.

Singapore is commonly described as a country where “East meets West.” As someone from Singapore, would you say that it is an accurate description? Why or why not?

I would think it’s pretty accurate. A lot of our pop culture is influenced by the western world. I also remember growing up to my dad singing his favorite songs by American artists. Unlike our neighboring countries, Singapore is probably the one Asian country whose citizens are mainly English speaking. Our late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew enforced the learning of English and our Mother Tongue (MandarinIMG_8059/ Tamil/ Bahasa Malayu depending on our race) in the education system, so all Singaporeans are pretty much bilingual. When we first became independent, we were a small country without any natural resources, so speaking English was a way for us to advance faster with the western world.

Has the culture in which you were raised influence you as a dancer? If so, please describe.

It definitely has! Growing up, I would watch and learn so many forms of dance from all the different racial groups like traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian dance. This has definitely informed the way I move as well as widened the possibilities of choreography. My family has also been such a huge influence on me. My dad’s Singaporean and my mom’s Filipino so I was also part of a mixed heritage. It definitely taught me to be open to different perspectives people had based on their own upbringing and I feel that being sensitive to that is very important to an artist. Getting through the education system in Singapore also definitely trained me to work hard in whatever is handed to me and to plan ahead for how I want to excel in my field.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I hope your winter break was fruitful and well spent with your loved ones! I wish you a wonderful and inspired year ahead, and if you ever visit Singapore, let me know 🙂

If you want to see a sample of Michelle’s videography skills, take a look at this hilarious video of Cory Owen (Director of International Advisement) and Josh Guillemot-Rodgerson (3rd year dancer) doing the Spicy Noodle Challenge!

Sam Nester

For December 2015’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed its first international staff member, Sam Nester.  Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Sam is currently a D.M.A. candidate and the Artistic Coordinator for the Office of Educational Outreach.  In addition to his work for Juilliard, Sam is a trumpet player and conductor and has performed in the USA, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He is a Teaching Artist, and is the recipient of awards from the the Kevin Spacey Foundation, the Australian Music Foundation (, and the Dame Joan Sutherland Fund ( In his interview, Sam discusses his experience as a former Fulbright scholar, his work with Ed Outreach, and his advice for Juilliard international students.  

How old were you when you first started playing music? What was the initial impetus?

I was interested in music before I began playing an instrument. When I was young, I found cassette tapes in our house of Glenn Gould playing Bach. I really enjoyed listening to these recordings and was fascinated by them, despite not really understanding why they were so special at the time. I started studying music when I was in primary school (elementary).

Sam Nester - Trumpet

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?

To be honest, when I first became interested in music, I didn’t know what a career in music was or could be. From about ten or eleven years old I knew I was going to be involved in music but didn’t know what that was going to entail. I did have some very dedicated music teachers in primary school that I owe much of this to, and thought that I too would probably become a music teacher. I believe we owe much to gifted, passionate teachers.

If you were not a musician, what do you think you would have studied and pursued as a career?

I am fascinated by the study of history and the philosophy of social science. I think if I were not pursuing a career in music, I would have become a historian and focused on social philosophy. I have always been passionate about education and see myself teaching in some capacity, regardless of my area of study.

Sam NesterYou came to the U.S. originally on a prestigious scholarship from Fulbright. For our readers who are not familiar with the Fulbright organization, can you tell them a little about it? What did it take to be granted a Fulbright?

The Fulbright is an incredible program of merit-based scholarships for international educational exchange. Founded by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, the program is open to students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists. It was established to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. I was very fortunate to have been a Fulbright Scholar and had some truly wonderful experiences through the organization.

To be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, I was required to complete a lengthy application, submit essays, a resume, biography, and then interview. The interview panel included a U.S. Consul-General, University lecturers, and a representative from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), among others (if I remember correctly).


What has been some of the greatest challenges of being an international student and performer in the U.S.?

The U.S. has some rather serious restrictions on foreigners with student and exchange visas, and working whilst holding these visas was tricky. As a musician, the restrictions can be especially frustrating, as our work is often under special circumstances that aren’t always considered when designing the rules. I am fortunate to have English as my primary language, so I did not face the same difficulties that many of my colleagues faced when arriving here in the U.S.

What has been the greatest benefit of having an international background as a student and performer in the U.S.?

Being exposed to a new culture and experiencing a new education style was certainly enlightening. I have found that the United States, and particularly New York, is receptive to foreign students and performers who want to immerse themselves in the culture. In my experience, people in the U.S. want to show you their country and culture and are interested in learning about yours. In addition to this, New York is a very cosmopolitan city with a diverse population of international citizens. The moment I arrived here, I was greeted by other young, and not so young, foreigners from a vast array of countries who have become close friends and colleagues. I believe that the international community, for the most part, sticks together. We share visa and immigration stories and offer advice for those first timers here in the U.S.

You have been living and performing in NYC for some time now. Do you have advice for the Juilliard international community? If so, what?

If you are an international student at The Juilliard School, obey the restrictions on your visa! It is extremely tempting to take a job without authorization, or agree to a last minute gig, but it can have serious consequences. I know musicians who have been sent back to their home countries for violating their immigration status, and this can remain in your immigration file well into the future. The same goes for professionals within the Juilliard community: if you are unsure about whether something is permitted within your visa status, ask the Office of International Advisement. If they are unsure, they will point you in the direction of someone who does know, and it could save you a lot of legal issues in the future.


How did you come to work in the Office of Educational Outreach? What drew you to this position?

I have been working with Educational Outreach at Juilliard for the past two years. When the position was advertised, I did not hesitate to apply. As part of The Juilliard School’s mission, there are seven goals to achieve the admirable duty of providing the highest caliber of artistic education for gifted musicians, dancers, and actors. One of the goals is as follows:

Juilliard will take an active role in shaping the future of the performing arts by providing exemplary arts education programs to the community and encouraging its students to serve as advocates for the arts in society.

I feel very strongly about offering high quality arts education programs to the greater community, and believe that all artists have a duty to advocate for the arts in society. It is wonderful that Juilliard prizes this so highly and offers students the opportunity for community engagement whilst pursuing their craft as world-class artists. Encouraging students to consider their role within society at this stage in their careers is truly remarkable, and opportunities through Educational Outreach contribute to this understanding. Part of my position helps shape how Juilliard achieves this. Working with students, designing and contributing to a crucial part of the Juilliard mission, is what drew me to the position and keeps me excited about my ever-changing role at the school.

What is your favorite part of working for Ed Outreach?

I must say that I have a few favorite parts of working for Educational Outreach. I am fortunate to design the interactive Young People’s Concerts for 4th and 5th grade students. It is wonderful working with Juilliard students, designing concert programs that engage young audiences and introduce musical concepts – and the audience is always excited to be here on our campus. It is also a privilege working with the Morse Teaching Fellows. The Juilliard students who are accepted into this program visit New York City public schools on a weekly basis, building a course of musical study in classrooms across the city. Among the many achievements of Educational Outreach at Juilliard is the Music Advancement Program (MAP). The program is a Saturday instrument instruction program for highly talented children from backgrounds underrepresented in the American performing arts. Working with this program is certainly a highlight of my position. A truly one of a kind program in the United States, MAP focuses on offering the highest level of tutelage to students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to be part of a world class conservatory.

You will be finishing your doctorate degree very soon. Is that correct? Where do you see yourself a year from now? How about five years from now?

I certainly hope to be finishing my doctoral degree soon! I am, for the most part, ABD. While I am dedicated to completing my dissertation in a timely manner, I also recognize that I only get one, and want to devote enough time and energy to researching and creating a significant thesis. As for where I see myself in a year/five years, I don’t know. There are always so many things that can pull and push you in one direction or another, and I try to stay open to new opportunities. I am certainly not someone you would categorize as throwing caution to the wind and floating along, waiting for things to happen, but whilst I pursue the professional artistic and educational goals I currently have, I am always prepared for change.



Ruaridh Pattison

Our first Jazz Studies student to be interviewed is Ruaridh Pattison, a 2nd year graduate student from the United Kingdom.  His interview with the Office of International Advisement reflects both his love of jazz as well as his great sense of humor.

How were you first introduced to jazz music? What specifically attracted you to jazz?
I think the story goes that I saw a saxophonist on Blue Peter (a British kid’s TV show) and got kind of obsessed with it from that point onward. My aunt was a saxophonist and a clarinettist and she gave me her alto because she had stopped playing. I should also mention that my great-grandfather played alto saxophone and clarinet in dance bands in the North-East of Scotland and I recently acquired his alto saxophone. It’s a beauty from 1926. You could almost say saxophone runs in the family but my aunt and great-grandfather are from different sides.
I think jazz and the saxophone go hand in hand (sorry classical saxophonists). I first came across jazz and the concept of improvisation when I played in the local big band. After that I was heavily drawn to the freedom of expression that jazz offers. Michael Brecker (like many a saxophonist) was my first hero. 

Jazz originated in the U.S. Is jazz popular in your country?
I wouldn’t say jazz is popular but there’s definitely a scene. Last week I was reading an article in The Scotsman (Scottish newspaper) about some recently unearthed recordings from the forgotten Black Bull Jazz Club in Milngavie from the 70’s and early 80’s. The article states that American jazz musicians who were on tour in the UK loved finishing up in Scotland because the audiences were ‘less reticent’ than in England. They enjoyed playing music with the Scots because the musicians apparently had a strong rhythmic vocabulary from playing in Scottish dance bands. A strathspey is a popular traditional dance back home and the accompanying music often is phrased in a manner similar to the swing feel of jazz! You could very, very tenuously say that ‘swinging’ is in my blood. 

pic5You are a master’s student at Juilliard–where did you do your undergraduate degree? In what ways was that experience different from your grad degree at Juilliard?
I did my undergraduate degree at The Guildhall School ( in London. I have many, many dear friends that I met whilst studying there and I would have to say the main difference is that there isn’t a pub that everyone goes to after (sometimes between) classes. There was even a fully operating bar on campus. Imagine. 

What was your reaction when you found out you were admitted to Juilliard?
I remember very vividly! I was in a pub (a different pub) with some close friends and when I read the email we all started cheering and jumping around and being generally celebratory. I bought everyone a round a drinks and then we went for burgers (poetic).

Tell us about the city where you grew up? Have you lived anywhere else prior to moving to New York City?
I was born and initially raised in Kirkcaldy which is a typical Scottish town, not very exciting and a bit dreary. When I was eight years old my family and I moved to rural Australia for a year and half which was a completely different experience. We returned to Balado which is a tiny hamlet in the middle of the Kinross-shire countryside. There wasn’t much to do apart from practice which, upon reflection, explains a lot. 

When you are not in class or practicing, what do you like to do in 11402723_10155700027810305_6393440783356443669_oNew York?
Seeing live music (of all sorts), drinking, cooking and eating. I live in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, quite close to the East River. There’s a lovely little park with a stunning view of Manhattan and I go there to read quite frequently. It’s very relaxing.

To what part of Juilliard culture was the hardest to adapt.
Everyone is really good and amazingly dedicated to what they do. I had to reassess how serious I was and I realised how badly I want to succeed. I upped my game pretty quick. 

What about US culture?
That people are actually seriously entertaining the idea of Donald Trump being president.

What part of your culture do you most like to share with your American classmates?
Unabashed swearing and an extensive knowledge of Scotch.

You have a first name that is not common in the U.S. Where does it come from? Does it have a specific significance (cultural, linguistically, familial)? How would you write it phonetically?

It’s a traditional Gaelic name. I wish I could speak Gaelic. Maybe in the future I’ll move to the north of Scotland and learn it properly. It means red-haired king although I, unlike many Scots, don’t have red hair, and I am the king of nowhere. So not only is it inappropriate, it’s a nightmare to spell to people. Thanks Mum and Dad. I often say you should pronounce it like brewery without the b. 

This is our first Eye on Culture for the 2015-2016 academic year. What advice do you have for new international students starting at Juilliard this fall?
Don’t forget why you fell in love with music (or dance and drama) in the first place, the best pizza near school is at Little Italy at 2047 Broadway and the best coffee is at Boxkite on 72nd between Broadway and Columbus.

Jonathan Spandorf

I have had the great pleasure of seeing Jonathan Spandorf, a recent Master’s graduate in Juilliard’s Music Division, conduct the Juilliard Lab Orchestra in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. I have also been fascinated by his travel stories told to me in my office over cups of coffee. Captured below is his dynamic, charismatic, and adventurous spirit.

Jonathan Spandorf 1Why did you choose conducting?
I was always fascinated by the work of the conductor and the orchestra because I played in the orchestra. When I was a teenager I actually discovered what we call classical music. I really liked the interaction of the conductor and people and the way that he works with them. Eventually, I was pretty curious in my senior year in high school to try to experience myself a little bit so I had a few opportunities. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun because I didn’t have to play. I felt like I’m making music together with other people, so I loved it.

Tell us about your hometown just outside of Tel Aviv.
I was born in Haifa but I moved pretty quickly to my hometown of Givatayim – it was a pretty standard small city and I was there for public school and later high school. They have this joke that Givatayim is actually some sort of Florida in Israel, but besides that, it was pretty quiet with nice people. My high school was a high school of arts and therefore many people from many other places in Israel came there to study, so I was able to meet many different people. Eventually, most of the time when I wasn’t at home I spent in Tel Aviv or in other places in Israel.

A few years back, you backpacked across South America for nine months. What made you decide to take that trip?
After my army service, I had so many thoughts about what I’m going to study. I was afraid of choosing music as a path and I was confused. Then a friend of mine from childhood offered for me to join him for a trip to South America. At first, I decided to go for three months and he told me that perhaps he will extend his trip… eventually it was the opposite. He decided to spend three months in South America, and I met this one guy and we Jonathan Spandorf 6spent together nine months and so many other people joined us. I met so many interesting people there. During my trip to South America I just discovered in myself that there are other things besides music that I like to do and I want to do. This is when I started to do really challenging hikes and I had the opportunity to climb mountains – a thing that I wouldn’t imagine I could do. I started to rock climb, which I am doing since just recently with a little bit of break, and kayaking – just things I couldn’t imagine I can do somewhere else, so it was an experience for me. This is when I also decided that perhaps music is good for me. I remember that at the middle of my trip, I decided you know what, I want to study music.

It just came to you?
Yeah, just one day I decided this is what I want to do and I’m going to make this happen. I guess I tried to avoid it so many times because of the challenging path of music and eventually I just couldn’t avoid it. Not even with a trip to a far place like South America.

Jonathan Spandorf 5What countries did you visit while you were in South America?
My trip started at Ecuador and pretty quickly I went to the Galapagos Islands. It was just an amazing experience being in such a special place. This is also when I thought, “My God, can this trip be even better than that?” I spent five months in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia and this is where I had my first attempts to climb mountains, rock climb, and do really long hikes; one hike was like fourteen days in the Andes. It was amazing to be in special and different landscapes, such as the desert in Bolivia. I went to Argentina and Chile, especially to the Southern part of Patagonia which was also amazing. The terrain was pretty mountainous but was so different than Peru and Bolivia. At the end, I went to the Carnival in Brazil. This was like the grand finale of my trip. It was a pretty good one.

How did your experience shape you?
I became much more independent after this trip. Somehow the things that I did just opened my mind to other possibilities. All these experiences just affect you as a person and I think this is exactly what happened to me.

Eventually, I think that after this trip I became more confident than what I was before in what I want to achieve, what I want to do and how I am going to do it.

What do you feel is the main challenge of being an international student?
First of all, the living. The living in New York is intense and it is expensive. Some people are pretty much lonely here. I’m not sure lonely, but they’re alone. They don’t have family. Most of them don’t know anybody. I was lucky that I had a few friends in New York, musicians that were here a long time ago and so it was like a soft landing for me in the city. I think that perhaps the most difficult thing is the fact that you’re alone, and I guess that this is also a part of the job for musicians. They live by themselves most of the time. I think this is the toughest.

Jonathan Spandorf 7What was your transition like to the U.S.?
When I came to do my audition at Juilliard, it felt quite natural in New York. I just loved the place. I loved sucking in the vibe. I mean I knew it’s super intense and that everyone, they just go and go, and you don’t have time and you spend so many hours outside. But there are so many other benefits in the city that I just told myself, “My God, I have to move here. It’s so great. It’s crazy, but it’s great.” So I guess for me, I would say it was a fun transition – if I can define it like that.

What would you say is the main difference between the U.S. and Israel?
In Israel, we tend to be much more direct than people in the U.S. I guess that because Israel is kind of Americanized in the past 20 years, you don’t see so many differences. Besides that Israel is so multicultural itself,  so we’re kind of used to everything.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
First of all, my family and friends. I really miss being with the people that I love and that love me. Just spending time with them, like going with friends to trips and having this great time together. Also, the food which is so fresh and good.

What do you think is the most common misconception of Israel?
This is kind of a tricky question. I guess that recently because Israel has so many domestic and international problems, people tend to see us as immoral most of the time. When I’m here I’ll obviously try to advocate for Israel all the time, but I can’t ignore the criticism that happens. I try to Jonathan Spandorf 4criticize what’s going on in my home country which most of the time really bothers me. Sometimes it makes me very sad to know about things that the society became, things that we don’t want to be we did. I always try to consider all the sides and all the aspects. I try to talk to as many people as I can about it and to understand. Especially when I visited Europe, I had the feeling of antagonism against Israel, and it was pretty hard to get free from the misconception. I guess the fact that people think people are immoral if they go to the army is not true. People are individuals. There are bad people and there are good people. I want to believe that there are more good people than bad people.

What are your plans after graduation?
I’m pursuing a job in conducting in an orchestra. I enjoyed teaching this year at school. It was really something great that happened to me – the fact that I was able to work with students from school to teach them and to learn from them how to teach better. I really hope this is something that I took to further my path and my career. I guess that most important for me is to keep pursuing opportunities to perform. Of course I would also like to develop some other skills as a musician – things that because of time limits I couldn’t do any more – like writing and arranging music that I like so much, and discovering other types of music which I was able to do here in NY with all this multiculturalism that we spoke about. The fact that one night you can go to a place like Village Vanguard, another night you can go to Guantanamera to hear Latin music, to the Met to hear opera or the Philharmonic. The fact that everything is so accessible for us. I want to keep doing it.

In reflecting on your experience here in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
Culture, Food, Weather.

Kara Chan

Kara Chan, a fourth-year dancer in Juilliard’s Dance Division, has illuminated the stage of many a Juilliard dance performance I have attended. In the course of our interview, she exuded a wisdom and poise far beyond her years. Her generosity of spirit graces the questions below.

4 year old ballerinaI’ve been fortunate to see you perform in many Juilliard dance performances over the years. How did you come to study dance?
Well, I was always one of those kids that would turn on the music on the stereo and dance and skip around the couch – there are so many recordings of me just doing my own thing. I was always an active child so that’s why my parents decided “Oh, she loves dance. Let’s put her in dance classes.” So I started recreationally at the age of 5. I relocated to a pre-professional training studio at age 10. I later went to high school that had a half day program, so it allowed me to do my academics which was a very important part of my life and do my training in the afternoons. It fulfilled so much for me and there was never a question of not dancing after high school. Dance has always been a really important part of my life.

IMG_1356Tell us about your native Vancouver.
I’m from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is very beautiful. It’s very green and it’s just a beautiful place with lots of mountains and trees and nature. It rains a lot which helps with the beauty of Vancouver, but I love it. I miss that aspect of it while being here. It’s a place where you can disconnect into the peace of nature. There is hiking and during the winter, all winter sports: skiing, snowshoeing, cross country (which I really love doing).

Who inspires you?
In general, I find inspiration from people who really have a drive and a passion for what they’re doing. It’s their outlook on life, their optimism, and making the most of it, for sure. Being surrounded by so many wonderful human beings as well as artists, I definitely can say that I’ve been inspired every day. It is so wonderful to be in an environment of people that want to be pursuing their art form and are wonderful human beings as well. I think the arts bring people together. I admire people that share the same work ethic and anyone who brings the best out of you; any mentor or person who sees the best in you and believes in your potential to grow and to continue evolving and learning.

Juilliard_Kara Chan_019

Is there any one person that has been especially mentoring of you at Juilliard?
Charla Genn, who teaches ballet class at Juilliard. She embodies all of these things I just mentioned. She’s very demanding of course, but it’s all a part of wanting the best from you and she’s so generous, so caring, and really wanting to invest in you. She sees everyone as a unique individual and makes them feel special – I think that’s a really special quality to have.

What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
Being at Juilliard so many of my memorable experiences have been outside the dance studio. Participating in Educational Outreach, doing Gluck, as well as teaching with the CLIMB fellowship and Arts Enrichment. I think it’s really important to develop and hone the skills as a teaching and performing artist as well as focusing on the pursuit of your career, because it informs what you do so much by being in the front of the studio. I really love teaching and sharing what I know with the New York community. I also really love Yoga. When I go back home for spring or winter break, it gives me a sense of groundedness, balance, and the ability to tap into my inner strength.

Juilliard School of the Arts

What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
Definitely the costs. Traveling home to here, and finding scholarship opportunities, which ties together. As a graduating student I’m starting to deal with visa things. Dance companies sometimes specify in their auditions that they only can look for dancers who either are U.S. citizens or hold a valid green card, so that ultimately cuts you off from being seen. This limits the options as an international dancer looking for work. I’ve come to realize that if a company is interested in you they have to take on that financial burden of your visa if they want to have you be a part of their collective. So that’s another challenge that is sort of new that I’ve discovered.

IMG_0245What was your transition like to the U.S.?
Before coming to Juilliard, I never spent a long period of time away from home, so the transition going into a big city was very exciting for me. I really loved being independent and finding what that was like to live. I actually wasn’t home sick my first year at all. I think it’s just the nature of being here and finding a community of people where you feel like you built a family. I do love the fast pace of New York City because I’m a very quick walker, but I think that has come from being in the city too. Coming to the U.S. I’ve definitely developed a broader perspective and an open mind. The diversity that exists in this city is so wonderful and so unique, so I think that’s special.

What are the differences you’ve noticed between Canada and the U.S.?
The holidays are much more commercialized and blown up here [in the U.S.]. Definitely, we know the U.S. as in larger portion sizing, so that was interesting. Canadians are often teased for being too polite, saying “sorry” when it’s not necessary. Oh, and I apparently have a Canadian accent in pronouncing words like “bag,” “bagel,” and “sorry.”

IMG_1244What aspect of Canada do you miss the most?
I love seeing the mountains, fresh clean air, and fresh water. Vancouver has the best water, I think. And being in nature. Central Park is beautiful, however, it’s amidst the tall buildings. Vancouver offers the sites, the nature, the greenery, the mountains and all the things you can do in terms of being outdoors – hiking, taking walks, etc.

What is the most common misconception of Canada?
I get this a lot: “Oh, you’re from Canada. It must be so cold”, or “Oh, you’re used to it here” as though you shouldn’t even be complaining it’s cold. It depends on where – of course if you’re living more back east like in Montreal and Toronto it can get cold in the winters. However, Vancouver is very pleasant – it’s a rain forest. Everyone thinks if you’re from Canada, you are used to wearing a parka all year round. That’s not the case and people think that you’re really talky and I’m not. What else? The temperature thing, Fahrenheit to Celsius – that was an adjustment. I haven’t converted to knowing what Fahrenheit is in relation to Celsius. I still look at my phone.


In reflecting on your experience in the US, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Opportunity. Diversity. Learning.

Duanduan Hao

Duanduan Hao, a first-year Masters pianist in Juilliard’s Music Division, brought a wealth of knowledge of his native Chinese and French culture to our conversation. In the course of our meeting, I noticed the French mannerisms and nuances so telling of his time spent in Paris. His code switching was between French and English, as with using the French word “Parisien” for the English “Parisian.” Duanduan’s unique cultural mix colors the questions below.

Duanduan Hao 1How did you come to play the piano?
In 1990s China it was a trend for children living in major cities to learn a special skill at school, so some learned an instrument of music like me, others sports, theatre, painting or sculpture. When I was two, I had a neighbor ten years older than me who was learning the piano. My parents found that I always got anxious when I heard the neighbor playing wrong notes! That’s the moment they discovered I was sensitive to piano, so they brought me one and I began to learn to play. That’s basically how my relationship with piano began.

Tell us about your native China.
I was born in the North and moved to Shanghai when I was eleven, so it’s a kind of second native city for me. Shanghai has lots of people, cars, skyscrapers, opportunities, and a very advanced education system. The most amazing feature of the city is that it has a great mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. Shanghai was occupied by Western countries like Germany, France, and England, that constructed parts of the city that still remain today. The architecture beside the river on the Western side is similar to London, while the Conservatory of Shanghai area was occupied by the French so we can see small houses in the French style, with lovely rooftops and colors. Even the trees were planted by French people. The local people in Shanghai are traditional in their way of living and even speaking because they kept their dialect and don’t really speak Mandarin between themselves. This shows the conservative way of the city, so it’s a great mixture of the open-minded and also the traditional.

Duanduan Hao 3You lived in Paris for ten years, starting at age fifteen. What brought you to Paris?
My parents had this plan already when I was little because they always wanted me to get to know different environments and new things – just to open my mind about the world. Also, because I was learning piano, which is really a Western instrument, it was logical for them to send me to the center of Western Europe, Paris. They sent me there to get directly in touch with the source of the culture.

You completed your undergraduate degree at the Sorbonne. Tell us about that.
My concentration was in art history and musicology. It was the most important period of my life; it changed a lot of my opinions of Occidental culture and had a great impact on my piano interpretation. The Sorbonne, founded in 1257, is one of the most ancient universities in the world. It is the second oldest university besides the one in Bologna. It carries a great heritage of the history of Western Europe. The Latin section in Paris is amazing for study and for culture. It is amazing to think that in the small cafes you pass by, there were once people like Hugo and Balzac drinking coffee and writing. You can also see the Notre Dame de Paris through the windows of the classrooms.

Now, the age-old question: New York or Paris?
For living, definitely Paris. For enriching experiences and developing a career, New York. It’s more adaptable. And I think New York is a place for young people to stay because it is so dynamic. Paris can sometimes get a little too quiet and a little too slow.

Duanduan Hao 4What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
The adaptation. We have to adjust ourselves as soon as possible to a new environment and have the courage to present ourselves to the new world, to meet new people, new friends. It seems simple, but it is not an easy thing to do when we first get to a new place and we don’t know anyone. This did not happen when I moved to the U.S. because I had many friends who were living, studying and working here. It happened when I was in France. I didn’t speak the language yet, was barely able to pronounce a few words, and didn’t have anyone I knew. It was really a difficult moment. I had to have an open mind to receive and absorb every moment in these new surroundings.

What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
The open-minded spirit, especially of people that live in New York, to the outside world. I talked with a few newcomers, and we all find that we can easily become a New Yorker once we’ve settled in the city. This doesn’t happen in other cities and more closed societies. It was after five or six years in Paris that I could finally consider myself a “Parisien.” There, you have to just make an effort to go into that society, to make yourself a place. But here, you already have a place. They just receive you as who you are, as a member of the city.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The food! Also, we feel a security when we stay in our country, like a tree with deep roots. It’s really stable and feels comfortable. But here, we’re like newly planted trees so we have to develop our own roots by ourselves. This is the most exciting part about it – adventure. I’m enjoying this moment of developing a new relationship with the new world.

Duanduan Hao 2What do you think is the most common misconception of China?
The most frequently asked question when I was in France and Europe was, “Do you have lots of trouble getting approved to come to Europe to study music and art?” This proves that their knowledge of China still remains in the 70s. They don’t know that the society has evolved and become so different. It is not a sealed and closed society with no contact with the outside world anymore. I wish to encourage people to know the new China, and welcome them to visit themselves if they are interested in what is going on in my country.

How have you experienced culture shock outside of China?
I think in the opposite way of thinking. In China, we have this tradition to think our ancestors are always right, and did greater things than us. If we look at Meditation One of Descartes, the way of thinking is to delve into what is already there and prove whether it is correct or not instead of believing what the ancestors said. This is radically different from how we normally think in China. There’s also a difference of religion, in terms of notions about God. In China we don’t talk about this in most families, but here, sometimes, we have to get in touch with and discuss elements of the Bible. In China the Bible is most commonly perceived as a romance or a legendary story. I have friends from France who study the Bible the same way they study laws, so that’s completely different.

In reflecting on your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
I loved it!

Correction: April 3, 2015

An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the oldest university in the world. It is in Bologna, not Polonia.