When Shelby Watson was a freshman in high school, she needed to add a class to fill a void in her schedule so she chose to take Chinese. Little did she know at the time that would be the key to her earning a scholarship to study the language in Taiwan.
Watson, a freshman at Western Carolina University, is the recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship given by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by American Councils for International Education. The program is a part of a U.S. government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages.
Among the languages being studied abroad are Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Watson is the first WCU student to receive a Critical Language Scholarship.
In order to receive a scholarship to study Chinese, a student had to have at least two years of studying the language. When Watson was looking for a class to complete her high school schedule, she said Chinese was the only class that sounded interesting.
“My high school only taught Chinese I and II, which were a semester long,” Watson said. “I did Chinese III and IV online my senior year, which was good. It helped me improve my reading, but it wasn’t very helpful with the communication part.”
Watson, a chemistry pre-med major from Asheville, will be in Taiwan for eight weeks. Prior to going, she will attend a three-day orientation in Washington, D.C. While in Taiwan, Watson will live with a host family. Watson will attend classes in the morning, which will include a couple of hours of homework each day, and in the afternoon there will be events and activities. While Watson is with other students, they can speak only Chinese.
This will be her second trip to China. Last winter, she was part of a program called “China – U.S. Rising Star Student Study Tour,” a two-week student exchange program sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It was then that she learned about the Critical Language Scholarship.
“I was excited, but I also was really nervous because I’ll be gone for eight weeks and I come back the day before fall semester starts,” Watson said. “I was also like, ‘Why did they pick me for this?’ Just being away for so long in another person’s house where they don’t speak English. It’s exciting, but it’s also terrifying.”
Watson said learning Chinese has been challenging. Learning sentence structure has been fairly easy. The difficulty comes in reading something in just the characters, which number in the thousands. There are also different tones for words, she said. Watson hopes this experience will allow her to be more fluent in Chinese.
“I love the culture and I’d love to have more experience with the culture,” Watson said. “Something I want to do later on in life is go back to China to this ice festival they have. It’s the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. They make buildings and cities out of bricks of ice. I want to go see it and I think it would be good to know the language fluently before I go.”