My first study abroad experience was when I was a senior in high school as a Rotary Youth Exchange student to Thailand — without having any previous Thai language study.This valuable experience taught me that with hard work and effort, one can step outside her cultural boundaries — not only to learn another’s language and culture, but also to live it.
In the summer of 2004, I volunteered to teach an English pronunciation course at Xi’an Jiaotong University in Shaanxi, China for a month. After previously living in Thailand and learning the language, I was quite frustrated with my limited communication abilities in China. Thus, my ambitious drive to learn Chinese began.
Although it was more the touching experience I had learning from the students than my lack of Chinese language skills that inspired me to pursue Chinese. The depth of mutual learning that takes place in an intercultural education setting is profound.
The greatest impact the students had on me came from their dedication to learning and hard work. They reminded me quite often how lucky I am to have the freedom to choose what type of education I may pursue.
This was a turning point when I realized I was committed to learning their language, history and culture as thoroughly as I could.
Recently I returned from completing three semesters of intensive Chinese language study at Associated Colleges of China in Beijing. This rigorous program, comprised mostly of American university students, is administered by Hamilton College and hosted by Capital University of Economics and Business.
The Freeman Asia Foundation, NSEP Boren Scholarship Program, and the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship all contributed to my financial needs abroad. Without these scholarships, I would not have been able to work towards attaining advanced Mandarin language skills.
For example, for the first three weeks it is a grueling process to become acquainted with local food and the vocabulary to be able to order it.
The transition from U.S. to Chinese education system was also trying. Besides the fact it is already an intensive program, the Chinese tend to emphasize the “rote memorization” method of learning.
If we did not keep up with the demands of memorization of hundreds of characters a day and various grammar structures along with the regular course work, we would fall behind and accumulate an unrealistic amount of work for the following day.
Overall, the challenges presented in the ACC program are intended to help students gain advanced levels of Chinese skills efficiently. Balancing host families, programmed cultural excursions, independent research projects and the regular academic rigor of ACC was a necessary tactic in order to complete the program successfully and raise my grades significantly each semester.
Throughout the program there were many academic and cultural challenges to meet in order to be successful. The strict language pledge limited students’ ability to express ourselves in our native language while under academic and new cultural pressure, but it also forced us to break through the language barrier in our studies — as well as our new lifestyle in China.