I decided to start learning Chinese in my second year of high school. At that time, I had studied French and German while speaking Russian at home and I really wanted to try a new language, one that was also becoming important from a social and political point of view.
I took five years of Mandarin before going to China as a Boren Scholar; during my Boren Scholarship, I studied at an intensive language program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I lived with a host family and attended four classes a day and also spent five hours a day doing homework. My Chinese improved tremendously. When I arrived in China, I could hardly read any locally printed materials or hold a very long conversation in Chinese; by the time I left, I could read the newspaper and talk about many different subjects with all kinds of people.
While my Boren experience improved my Chinese immensely, I learned much more as a graduate student with The Language Flagship, which is also sponsored the by the National Security Education Program. In the first year, I took courses at Ohio State University in Chinese on subjects such as negotiations in a Chinese environment, Chinese history and Chinese media. These courses allowed me to better understand how Chinese people view their own language and culture, and thus how to efficiently communicate and work with Chinese people.
During the second year of the program, I lived in a city with very few foreigners and worked directly with Chinese people. In addition to writing a thesis about Internet slang*, I interned at Guizhou Normal University. I worked on a project to preserve minority culture, which required travel to local villages. I also participated in a school-wide debate competition. I presented a five minute speech and won second place out of 30 contestants. * It was a milestone for me because I realized my ability to compete on the same level with native Chinese speakers. It also made me aware of the progress in my Chinese language and cultural knowledge.
I would like to complete my service requirement as an interpreter and translator for the federal government. In the summer of 2010, I interned with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, where I wrote weekly blog entries in Chinese, maintained the Russian language Facebook page and wrote articles about American-Russian cooperation. I also interned at the DOS Office of Language Services as a Russian and Chinese interpreter in summer 2012*.These internships counted towards four months of my service requirement, but more importantly they gave me the opportunity to use my language abilities and learn about the necessary skills to work in the federal government.
I would advise future applicants to choose a language they are passionate about, and to apply for the Boren Scholarship with the intention of continuing the language in the future. Studying abroad is only a beginning and should not be viewed as an end; rather, it is a crucial step in the learning process. Studying a difficult language is a lifelong process.
Written: June 2012