100K Strong Student Ambassador & School Year Abroad Alum
Reflects on 2015 National Chinese Language Conference
By: Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation, 100K Strong Student Ambassador, School Year Abroad Alum
Passion, environment and people. It’s all about the people. I just finished speaking at the Eight Annual National Chinese Language Conference, jointly hosted by the Asia Society and College Board, in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference brings together the top Chinese language teachers from around the country every year, and this year’s focus was “Pathways to Global Engagement.” I was asked to speak on a panel to demonstrate how Chinese language students use their language skills in their careers, a perfect compliment to my responsibilities as a 100,000 Strong Foundation Student Ambassador.
I am the Editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation, so I was the resident “policy wonk” on the panel. My fellow panelists were Kara Bobb, a buyer for Amazon and a graduate of Ohio State’s Chinese flagship program; Jeff Kellog, who started his own company catering to Chinese tourists in the States with customizable itineraries; Mateusz Naslonski, a sophomore at Georgetown University with a keen interest in Asian language; Clarissa Shah, a lawyer in Chicago; and Ashley Tolbert, a college student at Agnes Scott College. Our discussion on the panel revolved around our experiences learning Chinese and how we now use Chinese in our careers.
The panel left me with several impressions about learning Chinese. First, it’s about passion along a two way street—you need a willing student, and a willing teacher. All of the panelists have a great passion for learning Chinese, but equally important, they had great teachers along the way who went above and beyond to support their students’ interest in the language. Each of the panelists started studying Chinese on very different paths: I picked Chinese because it was the only option left after my 12 year old self eliminated Latin (dead), Spanish (everyone else already spoke it) and French (I had heard Parisians were mean to new learners). Clarissa’s parents initially opposed her taking Chinese—though they now claim to have been proponents all along—and Ashley took it on a whim. Yet we all were fortunate to have the right teachers who ignited a passion for the language, something that has quite literally changed all of our lives, and continues to shape them today.
In a happy coincidence, several of our Chinese teachers were in the audience. Jeff Kellog was able to mention his favorite teacher, Keidi Steele, and I mentioned a lifelong mentor, Jeff Bissell, and my wonderful high school teacher, Adam Ross.
Second, it’s about the environment. For all the wonderful Chinese teachers we had in the States, we had equally amazing experiences in China that drove us to double-down on the language. I am a proud alumnus of School Year Abroad (2005-2006), where I spent my junior year of high school in Beijing living with a host family and traveling around China. After participating in seven study abroad programs in China, I can confidently say SYA was the most important year of my life—it had the best Chinese language instruction and provided unparalleled opportunities to experience and understand China, all while giving me lifelong friends. In fact, 10 years after SYA, I spent the evening after the conference with one of my SYA classmates and his family who live in Atlanta, including his newborn twins. Beyond SYA, Kara and Jeff both thrived in the Chinese flagship program and Clarissa spent time at Peking University.
Third, and most important, it’s about the people. Most immediately, the conference was a lot of fun for me, because I was able to meet and spend time with my fellow panelists who were equally passionate about China and Chinese. SYA would have been nothing without great teachers and great friends, and my memories of each Chinese city I’ve lived in are marked by the people I was with and the friends I still keep in touch with. Jeff is still close with friends from his time in China and Ashley keeps in touch with her Chinese host family as well.
This leads me to my final point, and the end of the panel. For each one of us, learning Chinese was, ultimately, merely a stepping stone to something more important—greater self-confidence in confronting, overcoming and conquering challenges; exposure to the rest of the world beyond the United States, a better understanding of different cultures and rich experiences abroad; and a passion and drive to pursue a career intimately linked to China. Chinese was the merely the gateway to a life of opportunities.
Learning Chinese was the first step, but studying abroad in China was the catalyst, and that is why the 100,000 Strong Foundation’s mission is so vital: supporting students to spend time in China, challenge themselves by stepping out of their comfort zone and improve their understanding of their self and the world—opening a new world, quite literally, of possibilities that extends far beyond just China.