Three students win language scholarships that are 'not for the faint of heart'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three Penn State students will be traveling to countries around the world this summer as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program.

Ben Stewart, Elyse Mark and Grace Benner, all Paterno Fellows in the College of the Liberal Arts, are among approximately 550 U.S. undergraduate and graduate students chosen to study at one of the seven- to 10-week intensive language institutes in 13 foreign countries. Selected students will study one language among Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish or Urdu.

“For our students to win is a huge thing,” said Ruth Mendum, director of the University Fellowships Office. “The CLS is incredibly demanding. It is not for the faint of heart.”

The CLS program is part of the U.S. government’s effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. It provides fully funded, group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences.

“The thing that’s important in this scholarship is to understand where you’re going to be using the language,” Mendum said. “Students have to articulate how they’re going to use the language and how they’re going to sustain and continue their language competence.”

Stewart, a senior from Shippenville, Pa., is a Schreyer Honors College student double majoring in Spanish and Russian with a minor in linguistics. He will study Russian at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities in Kazan, Russia.

Although Stewart studied Spanish for six years, he entered Penn State wanting to find a second language to master. “I knew that I needed to study a language that was less spoken than Spanish,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily useful, but since I’m looking to get my foot in the door with government or political work, Russian was a good choice.”

What attracted Stewart to the language was the quality of his first Russian class at Penn State and the cultural understanding he picked up through Russian literature.

“One of the most important bits about studying a language to me is to love the culture,” he said, adding that he’s particularly excited to explore different parts of the country through weekend immersion trips organized by his program.

Mark, a junior from Downingtown, Pa., is a Schreyer Honors College student double majoring in English literature and Chinese with a minor in German. She will travel to Suzhou, China, to study Chinese at Suzhou University.

Mark studied German in high school but said she always wanted to study Chinese because her Chinese-American father speaks the Cantonese dialect. “I was really excited to take it in college because I never had the opportunity before,” she said.

Penn State offers classes in Mandarin, the official national dialect in mainland China. The differences between the two dialects were surprising for Mark. “I was really taken aback by the way Mandarin sounded. You get used to how a language sounds,” she said of listening to her father speak Cantonese, “but now it sounds very different.”

Mark said her first semester studying Mandarin was challenging, but then she caught on. “I just think it’s really interesting comparing the different aspects of the languages,” she added.

After her summer with the CLS program, Mark will move to Shanghai to further her studies for the fall and spring semesters at East China Normal University through the CIEE Accelerated Language Program, an affiliate program of Penn State. Mark said she plans to use the language to study peace and conflict resolution at the graduate level and possibly work for the U.S. Foreign Service.

Benner, a sophomore from State College, Pa., will travel to Wonju, South Korea, to study Korean at Yonsei University.

She first became interested in the language during her freshman year of high school when she accepted a job teaching English to younger students. She began to notice that many of the students had difficulty with certain parts of the language.

“All of my students were Korean, so I was really interested in what sort of background they had to learn English,” she said. That curiosity led Benner to spend her senior year of high school in Busan, South Korea, as a Rotary youth exchange student where she lived with a Korean host family.

Benner, who will be admitted to the Schreyer Honors College in the fall, is studying linguistics and is anticipating the “more rigorous” CLS program.

“I’m really looking forward to studying Korean and only being allowed to speak Korean. I think it will be a fun challenge,” Benner said. “When I was in Korea before, I spoke Korean every day to my friends and family, so I think it’ll be interesting to do that again and improve even more.”

Mendum noted that once students complete the scholarship program, it’s important for them to find ways to continue immersing themselves in use of the language, such as joining international student groups or conversing with a native speaker.

“If you don’t get to self-sustaining mastery, you’ll lose it as soon as you stop taking classes, and that makes learning some of these languages very difficult,” Mendum said. “At Penn State, we have a benefit. You can do that for any of these languages. We have native speakers from every one of these countries, and not just one or two.”

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Last Updated May 27, 2014