While CAMD is home base for student Jon Zhang, much of his experience at Northeastern University has been abroad. Thanks to generous scholarships and financial assistance from Northeastern’s GEO and the University as a whole, Jon and many of his classmates have had the opportunity to take advantage of all the global opportunities the school has to offer. Jon’s latest adventure has been in South Africa, where he spent the past semester on co-op working at the Cape Town Opera and immersing himself in the country’s culture, excitement, and beauty. We caught up with Jon, who plans to graduate this spring with a B.S. in Music with a concentration in Music Industry, to hear about his memorable experience abroad – learn about his semester from Jon’s own words, below!
What has been your favorite part about living and working in South Africa this semester?
I think the coolest thing is just the fact that Northeastern has given me so many opportunities to live and explore different cultures. From living in Africa, I have been able to meet and become friends with South Africans, Kenyans, Rwandans, Congoleans, and people from many more cultures that used to be completely foreign to me. The exposure to all these new lifestyles, languages, and foods has been an eye-opening experience – there’s always something new to learn! One example of some cultural immersion I had relates back to a class I took last semester, Professor Asai’s World Music History class. In the class, we did an entire unit on the traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, and now, during my time in South Africa, I’ve had the chance to experience this music first-hand. I have been able to hear it live and speak to those who actually grew up with, perform, and listen to it, which is really cool.
The other best part of living and working in South Africa is that Cape Town is undoubtedly the most beautiful city I have ever lived in, maybe have ever been to. You have the mountains and the beach right next to each other and I am literally always in awe of the scenery. South Africa is one of those places that I always saw in photos, books, videos, etc. as I was growing up, but I never really imagined I’d ever get around to visiting (who has that much free time these days, am I right?), let alone have the chance to live here. You can catch me hiking in the morning and laying on the beach in the afternoons every weekend without fail.
Tell us about your co-op at the Cape Town Opera. What have you been doing there that relates back to your major of Music Industry?
When I originally came here, I accepted the co-op as a Production Assistant position, but shortly after starting, I got promoted to be the Assistant to the Artistic Director too, which came with so many more responsibilities! It’s difficult to lay out exactly what a producer does, but I like to joke with my friends that if you’ve ever seen The Devil Wears Prada, that’s me, but with theatre rather than the fashion industry. I’ve taken on tasks that include anything and everything from arranging flights for our international tours to scheduling auditions to even helping with various artistic decisions that go into all of our productions. During my time here, I’ve had the opportunity to work on three in-house productions and three international tours (both in Opera and Musical Theatre). It’s a hectic and busy environment because we produce shows both locally and for international tours, so you need to have the flexibility and stamina to be doing a million things at once.
The biggest project, and my proudest achievement so far, is on a brand new musical theatre piece that will be premiering here in Cape Town and again in the UK next year. The Cape Town Opera is co-producing the show with the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and I have gotten to work with both creative teams here and across the pond. I was put in charge of the entire casting and audition process, which means I helped schedule and liaise with 15+ agents to review CVs and audition over 200 performers and 70 children across three cities in South Africa and more in the UK. I’ve also had the privilege of working closely with a Tony and Olivier Award-nominated director, and it has been a treat to watch her in action through the creative process. Since it is a brand new show, I have been able to witness first-hand the writing, composition, and editing process of the script and music, which most people never get to see or really think about!
I think that many of my peers in the Music Industry program are primarily interested in the popular/contemporary music spheres, which I definitely am too, but I grew up playing classical music in orchestras and bands so it is really cool to see my life come full circle like this. There’s an ethnomusicology requirement within the Music Industry major too, which I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to start until my fourth year because of all the time that I had spent abroad, but I really wish I had more time to take additional classes on various world music genres. I guess living abroad and experiencing them first hand is a pretty good substitute though.
It seems like you have really taken advantage of study abroad opportunities during your time at Northeastern. Remind us where else you’ve been and how your experiences abroad have enhanced your education.
Not to be corny, but every day I think about how lucky and fortunate I am to have gotten to do all that I have done. I will forever assert that Northeastern is the greatest school in the world, specifically because of all the global opportunities that we offer our students. I have been able to do two study abroad semesters and two international co-ops, totaling over two full calendar years abroad by the time I graduate, which is unbelievably cool to me! I studied abroad at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia. I held a co-op at Kobalt Music Group in London. I am currently co-oping at the Cape Town Opera here in South Africa, and next semester I am going to be returning to London for another study abroad semester at Goldsmiths, University of London. Next year, the Cape Town Opera is even doing a couple tours in Europe during my time in London and I’ve already made arrangements to go visit the company in France and maybe even Germany as well!
It’s really important to me that I immerse myself as deeply as I can into the culture that I surround myself with. This can be anything from simply taking public transportation to learning the local slang and exploring new languages, which is always fun. For a foreigner, I must say I have gotten pretty good at isiXhosa, which is one of the African languages with click consonants.
When I was applying to college, I never imagined I would be going abroad this much, if even at all, but I am so glad that I did. I can confidently say that I now have friends to visit and stay with on all six inhabited continents! The world is becoming more and more globalized every day and in today’s tumultuous political and social environment, it is important that we explore how different people live, learn, act, and work so that we can understand each other and be more empathetic to other humans. With every new experience abroad, I feel like a completely different person. I think spending time abroad not only helps a person understand the world better, but it even helps them learn more about themselves as an individual. Everything that I gain from the people I meet and the places I go shapes me in different ways and makes me a more culturally aware and sensitive person.
Any plans for after graduation?
I am lucky that I have a good relationship with all of my previous co-op employers (I’ve been asked back by three out of three of them, woo!) so maybe depending on what needs they each have when I graduate, I will look to go back to one of those companies. I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have networked and made connections all over the world throughout my travels and I feel pretty confident that I have a few other cool opportunities lined up, but nothing set in stone! I know graduation is only five or six months away but I have so much excitement to focus on between now and then that it really is difficult to think so far ahead! All I know is that you can bet that I won’t be settling down anytime soon.