Meet Sara Wagner: Feng Shui Study Abroad Program to China Lends Unique Perspective on Interior Design and Architecture

Sara Wagner
Sara Wagner

“Don’t let anything hold you back whether it’s the money, a job, or availability; take the time to travel now. This was the trip of a lifetime and I loved every minute of it!”

— Sara Wagner, junior from Trevor, WI, majoring in interior design.


Why did you decide to study abroad?

From the time I got to campus freshman year, I wanted to study abroad. I have always been intrigued by different cultures and my goal is to learn and experience as many as I can. This was an opportunity not only to travel around the world, but also to gain insight on interior design and architecture that will forever aid my education and future career. Before traveling to China, I had never been out of the U.S.

Why did you choose to go to China?

The Feng Shui study abroad program to China is perfectly catered to fit the needs of interior design students. Professor Wei Dong, the head of design at UW–Madison, personally takes us around China to see and experience all that it has to offer. All of the design students that went on the trip previously absolutely loved it and recommended it highly.

What were you doing while there? What was daily life like?

For the majority of our trip, we traveled around with Professor Wei to different historical sites or design centers each day. While we were out and about we discussed the different designs and how feng shui and the Chinese culture related to each site. We had time most days and weekends to do what we wanted or to go on optional planned trips, such as to the Great Wall, The Beijing Zoo, and pearl market. During our free time, we mostly hung out around the Peking University campus – which was gorgeous, shopped, or revisited sites that we really enjoyed to gain more knowledge and insight to help write our final paper on a Chinese design concept. We also tried different things like Tai Chi and Chinese brushstroke painting, which was really cool as well.

What is the most meaningful experience that you had in China?

The part of the trip that stands out most for me was walking the amazing Great Wall of China. No amount of words, pictures, or even videos can describe its beauty. I have never been to a place like that in my life. On our last climb up the Great Wall I had to face reality . . . this might be the last time I would ever be there again in my entire life. I felt so grateful to have been given the opportunity to study abroad. It really allowed me to appreciate the trip, experience, and chance of a lifetime. It will forever be one of my favorite memories.

What was one of the most jarring experiences you had there? Why?

My most jarring experiences were my encounters with food. A lot of things are served with the WHOLE animal … like we got chicken one night and the head was served on the platter. Another day I unknowing ate pork stomach. I was all for trying new things and experiencing Chinese culture but that was one thing I just could not get used to.

What languages did you need there?

The language barrier was definitely much more intense than I expected, and since I knew absolutely no Chinese it was even more difficult. I wished I had taken some basic, beginner classes in Chinese before I left, just for my own sake. My professor and two graduate students on the trip were fluent in the language; I do not know what I would have done without them.

How do you think your experiences in China will help you after you graduate?

This experience made me look at design from a completely different perspective. I learned new and innovative ways to handle a space and think about how everything contributes to the inhabitants’ well-being, emotions, and overall experience. I will forever be able to use what I learned in my studies at UW–Madison and in my future career.

What advice would you give another student who plans to study abroad in China?

Going there with an open mind and trying everything is the best advice I could give. You need to accept all the differences between your daily life at home and the daily life in China. You can take so much more from the experience if you are open to and accepting of all the different things you will encounter and see in China.

What have you missed the most since returning home?

"We were a little family," Wagner says of her program friends.

I miss being able to explore the different environment. It was nice just walking around and not knowing what you were going to find. I also miss the friends I made on the trip. It’s hard to live with 13 other people for a month, then not see them. We were a little family.

Did you receive financial assistance such as a study abroad fund scholarship?

I paid for a lot of my trip through scholarships. I received one through UW-Madison’s International Academic Programs (IAP) and then another one from an outside source. If not for the help, the trip would have been extremely difficult to afford and I might not have been able to go at all.

Any final thoughts?

Everyone should embrace the opportunity to study abroad and experience the world. I have learned so much that will not only affect my career but my entire outlook on life. It was a truly amazing experience and I don’t regret any of it. Don’t let anything hold you back whether it’s the money, a job, or availability; take the time to travel now. This was the trip of a lifetime and I loved every minute of it!