An interview with Leslie Martinez, a student at Texas A&M International University who studied abroad with ISA for an entire academic year in Shanghai, China.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Leslie D. Martinez, I’m from Laredo, Texas but I lived in Mexico until freshman year in high school. I studied abroad in Germany through the Rotary Youth Exchange program my Senior Year of HS (2010-2011). I’m currently a senior at Texas A&M International University pursuing a B.A. In Multidisciplinary Studies with concentrations in Political Science, International Leadership and Translation. I’m passionate about languages and connecting cultures. I practice Martial Arts and I love dancing and cooking.
Why did you choose Shanghai, and why did you go abroad with ISA?
I chose studying abroad in SH because I figured that in order to learn Mandarin, I needed to be immersed in the culture. My university didn’t offer any direct exchange programs, but we are partners with ISA and I was able to apply to this program and get college credit while abroad.
What were your classes like? Any notable courses that you took?
I signed up for the year-long Intensive Mandarin Language Program. My classes were fantastic, although at the beginning they were pretty intimidating. My professors only spoke mandarin, so it was a full 100% immersion from day one. It was amazing to learn about the culture, food, arts, films and geography of China with such a great group of professors and international students. My classes were divided into listening, reading and conversational courses. I was with the same classmates for all semester: students from all over the world including Russia, Japan, Korea, Germany, among other countries. As part of our courses we participated in weekend excursions to nearby cities.
How did you make local friends? Do you have any good stories about friendships with locals?
I tried to get involved with local activities to make friends. First, I started off by volunteering as an English, Spanish and Zumba/Latin dance teacher at ECNU. I met many students that later on became very good friends. Surprisingly, I met my best friends because they approached me. For example my best friend, Jacky. I was buying fried rice in front of school and as I ordered in Chinese I heard a voice saying… “Oh! You speak Chinese?” It was a random guy who was also waiting for his dinner to be prepared. After a short conversation we walked to school together and realized he lived in the dorms next to mine. That afternoon he invited me to play badminton and from that moment on we just grew as very close friends. We met almost every evening to practice English/Chinese, have dinner or just to hang out. Up to this day I am still in contact with him.
How did you improve your Chinese while abroad? Did you have any notable moments of “breakthrough” when you realized you had improved?
It was definitely a process. My first semester it was all from the classroom. I didn’t really have local friends and it was tiring enough listening to Chinese all day in class only understanding 10-20% of what was going on. After Christmas break, once I had more Chinese friends, I started to realize I could have full conversations in Chinese. I remember this time I was not allowed in school for some strange reason, and I was able to hold an argument with the security guard to let me in. After I arrived in my room, I felt really proud of being able to communicate my thoughts even in a situation like that.
What have you done with your experience since you’ve been back?
Ever since I returned, I’ve been sharing my experiences studying abroad at my University and in my community. From study abroad expos to presentations, I’ve been honored to talk about China, my experience and how enriching it was to live abroad. October, last year, I became a Leadership Fellow for Project Pengyou, a network of Study abroad in China alumni dedicated to building bridges across both cultures.
What is Project Pengyou?
Project Pengyou gave me a safe space for me to be understood once I was back home. It gave me the opportunity to share my love for China, how friendships impacted my life and to bring people along to live and and bring the Chinese culture with us to South Texas. For others, it became a resource to learn about China, the culture, language, food… And its people. To learn that China is more than a political party and chopsticks.
Why should American students learn Chinese?
Our future is headed to a world where China and the US are the hegemonies. It is important for the world and our generation to see past politics and business… relationships are needed. Friendships and real cross-cultural communication, and as the saying goes “Many things are lost in translation.” That’s why, at least personally, I believe it is crucial for us to communicate and understand each others’ cultures. And what a better way to learn about a culture than immersing yourself in it. Especially by learning Chinese, because in China the cultural history and power that it’s carried through its language cannot be translated.
What’s the biggest obstacle for American students who are trying to learn Chinese?
Accessibility and affordability. It’s difficult to have access to some language learning programs, especially in non-diverse communities and in schools where Mandarin is not offered. Also, the price of study abroad programs is high. I was able to pay for my study abroad program through financial aid, the Gilman Scholarship, TAMIU and ISA scholarships. But for many students that is the number one factor that keeps them from study abroad: cost.
How has study abroad influenced your career goals?
When I decided to learn Mandarin I was certain that that decision was going to completely alter my future–and it did. After my study abroad experience I decided I want to dedicate my life to connecting cultures and bridging communities and countries through cultural exchange and policy. It led me to switch my major to Political Science and to intern in Capitol Hill this summer. As I explore my career opportunities in this field, I am certain that China will remain part of my future, and that would not have been the case had I not experienced China firsthand while studying abroad.
See more about Leslie’s story here:
- US China Daily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015-07/07/content_21199690.htm
- TAMIU Chapter Wins Chapter of the Year Award: http://projectpengyou.org/inaugural-project-pengyou-chapter-reunion-and-leadership-retreat/
- Global Citizen Award: http://projectpengyou.org/congratulations-leslie-for-winning-the-global-citizen-award-at-tamiu/
The world awaits… discover it.