Participating in NSLI-Y fulfilled one of Deja’s childhood dreams. Her path began when she was in elementary school. “When I was in the second grade, my school had a fair called the Passport Project. Every class had to pick a country and explain its culture. I went to a classroom that had done their project on China and was immediately drawn to it. They had an example of delicious food and a book full of characters and pictures of traditional Chinese clothes…That same day I went on and on to my mom about China and said I wanted to go. My mother repeatedly told me you can’t go unless you know the language, so from then on I had my heart set on making it there.”
Her commitment to learning Chinese continued to grow. By sixth grade, she was using Rosetta Stone, Skyping with Chinese teachers in China, and watching YouTube videos and Chinese cartoons. When she reached high school, she chose to transfer to a school that taught Chinese. One year, her Chinese class offered an opportunity to travel to China, but she was unable to participate because of limited finances. Knowing how much Deja wanted to visit China, her teacher told her about the NSLI-Y scholarship. Deja was very excited about the opportunity; she applied and was accepted to the Mandarin academic year program in Taiwan.
While her family had been supportive of her studying Chinese, they were concerned about her living so far away for an academic year. Through several discussions with Deja’s Chinese teacher and NSLI-Y staff, Deja’s mom had her questions answered and eventually became very supportive of her participation.
In preparation for NSLI-Y, Deja had decided to be flexible and to not have expectations in order to avoid disappointment. However, adjusting to living so far from home was still difficult. By focusing on making friends and learning about the city where she lived, she was able to feel more comfortable. Focusing on learning the language also helped. “I just kept my eye on my goal of learning Chinese and immersing in the culture. I took everything one step at a time.”
The rigorous language learning focus of NSLI-Y coupled with the immersion experience of living in Taiwan helped Deja progress quickly. “I started off only being able to introduce myself and communicate what I like and don’t like. With time, I was able to talk about almost anything and get my point across. I felt that even if I had to say twelve other sentences just to get my point across, I still would feel satisfied because there was a point in time when I didn’t know how to say twelve other sentences. By the end of the program, I was able to easily translate from English to Chinese and vice versa.”
Deja was also able to use her language skills to share her culture and background as an African American. Taiwanese people were very curious about her hair, her skin color, and stereotypes about African Americans from movies. While this was a little uncomfortable at first, she came to see this as a great opportunity. “Getting to know their ideas and then being able to change them with the truth by educating them on African American culture was the best part of my experience.”
She would give the following advice to other participants who may experience similar situations: “Just be yourself. Don’t be afraid to educate people on your culture as well because it’s a cultural sharing experience. There are so many stereotypes in the world, but by breaking the language barrier you can break those stereotypes down too. Use your new language ability to share. It worked for me.”
Deja has returned to Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages (WZU) in Taiwan to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in translation. She hopes to one day start a translation business and language school. Achieving her dream of learning Chinese and living in Taiwan has given her the confidence that she can reach even greater dreams. She encourages others to have the same confidence. “Never give up on your dream. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Deja was a NSLI-Y participant in the 2015-2016 Taiwan Academic Year program.