Ryanna Chouman ’21 and Shannon York ’21 were recently accepted to the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Chinese, a prestigious summer program that includes intense language study and opportunities in cultural exchange and diplomacy. The program selects only 600 graduate and undergraduate students per year, and Chouman and York are only the fifth and sixth Trinity students to receive the award.
The program will take place this summer and will last for approximately two months, during which Chouman and York will spend every day sharpening their Chinese skills in intensive language classes while also learning about Chinese culture. Due to the pandemic, Chouman will be completing her program remotely in Texas, but York will be going to Taiwan to complete her program.
“I’m excited that it’s in Taiwan because I’ve never had the opportunity to travel there before,” York says. “I’m looking forward to being able to fully immerse myself in learning Chinese, as well as experiencing the culture firsthand.”
In addition, York, who is majoring in international studies with a concentration in international affairs, views the CLS program as a way to make herself more marketable to future employers. “The CLS program will provide me with the necessary language skills I need for my future career in China or using Chinese,” she says.
Chouman, a Chinese language and international studies double major, was drawn to the CLS program after beginning to work with the U.S. Department of State through a virtual internship in which she has been conducting research on international civil society.
"I really love the environment I've been able to be involved with at the state department,” she shares. “I've felt really appreciated for all my ideas I bring to them—it's very open. And I get to use my Chinese skills all the time.”
Trinity’s Chinese language major is one of the things that drew Chouman here four years ago.
"Language learning has always been a really big part of my life, I have a passion for learning languages—difficult ones too. I love being challenged."
The Chinese Studies major is housed in the University’s East Asian Studies at Trinity (EAST) program, which is an interdisciplinary program that studies East Asian languages, cultures, and societies. The program features 35 faculty and staff members from different departments and divisions across the University and also offers its own First-Year Experience course, “Being Young in Asia.”
“No matter where you go on campus, you always have an EAST professor or professor who teaches a class related to East Asia, that you know and you can talk to, or you can talk about all kinds of random interests they have,” says Ry Eskridge ’20, program coordinator.
Chouman agrees. "It's so often at Trinity that I feel this kind of connection between my classes, even if they have nothing to do with each other,” she says. “Sometimes there's strange areas of overlap that you never would have expected, and I love to think about that when writing papers and preparing homework for class."
But, if you ask the EAST program’s directors, Stephen Field and Jie Zhang, the program’s large size does not make it any less personal and individualized for students. “When students join the program, they feel like they have a family, and they stay in this family from the very first course they take at Trinity until, well . . . forever,” Field says.
The EAST program also prepares students exceptionally well for opportunities such as the Critical Language Scholarship program. Many students conduct undergraduate research projects through the Mellon Initiative, and many students study abroad, as it is a requirement for Chinese language majors.
“If I could give one piece of advice to future Trinity students, I would tell them to take full advantage of all the amazing resources and opportunities professors share with you,” York shares. “This is how I was able to gain so many great experiences from studying abroad to interning at a great company, and professors even informed me about the CLS program, which has prepared me for life after graduation.”
With so many opportunities available, “Our students’ application files stand out not only in their academic rigor, but also through other research experiences, such as presenting papers at academic conferences and working with professors closely during the summer, and study abroad and internship experiences,” Zhang explains. “Each of these experiences can be considered a different puzzle piece. Together they compose a file that is unparalleled by many of our peer institutions.”
For Chouman, her experience abroad was one of the most foundational in her development and preparation for the Critical Language Scholarship program. For five months, she studied in Beijing, China, speaking only Chinese for the duration of her stay.
"Every single day, I was in five to six hours of classes, and my peers and I were all under a 24/7 language pledge where we weren't allowed to speak a word of English until we went home,” she says. “While that was challenging at times, it was really impactful for my Chinese language development and appreciation for Chinese culture, history, and politics."
She hopes all Trinity students get to have that kind of study abroad experience. "It will truly change your life, being able to understand a culture that is so different from your own and making genuine connections with friends around the world” she explains. “It’s totally changed the direction of my life, and I witnessed it do the same for lots of Trinity students.”
And Chouman recognizes that studying abroad won’t be the only chance to practice and utilize her Chinese skills.
"You are not going to regret taking more upper-level language classes,” Chouman says. “It's going to open so many opportunities for you that you may not realize at the time, because we are living in an increasingly global and interconnected world."
The header photo features Ryanna Chouman '21 (center) on her study abroad trip in China.