By Naomi Aguilar, HT Class of 2019
I never thought that one evening of randomly checking my email would start a journey that would change my life. I heard about the NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) program through alumnus Evan Killion, who traveled to Russia through the same program. NSLI-Y gives merit-based scholarships to high school students for either one academic summer or one academic year to study in foreign countries and learn languages that the government deems critical for Americans to learn. They currently offer eight languages including Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Bahasa (Indonesian), Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish.
I have been learning Mandarin in school since the fifth grade and have always had an immense passion for Asian and Chinese culture. Since elementary school, dreams of exploring Asia have been my go-to fantasy. The only way I could experience China was by watching Chinese movies and soap operas. My passion for Chinese culture directly led me to discover other Asian cultures, and my interest in foreign policy later developed. When I caught wind of a free trip to China with other kids who are just as enthusiastic, I instantly applied.
I left on June 24 to Nanjing, China and stayed there for six weeks. Already having been informed of Chinese culture and what to expect from my own research, I did not experience much culture shock. I was placed into the intermediate class at the university at which were studying, and I lived with a six-member host family during my time. I was surprised at the amount of freedom we had throughout the entire trip. After our classes (that ran from 8 a.m. to noon) and our cultural excursions, we could hang out with friends wherever we wanted. This program helped me develop independence and allowed me to develop a deep sense of gratitude for what I had back home here in America. China is not a third-world country, but it is still not considered a developed country. One of the experiences I had that will stay with me forever was when I visited a palace with my host dad, grandfather and little brother, I could not read one character on a plaque at the museum. I asked my grandfather what the character meant, and he told me he could not read. I had never meet someone who could not read, and for some reason I felt so shocked hearing his words. He later described to me that his family was too poor to get education as farmers in rural China. From that moment on I remembered how privileged and thankful I am to be living in the United States and having an education.
Going to China forced me to deal with my own anxieties related to traveling and having my own responsibilities as a student. This trip made me realize my passion for learning about the everyday man and the small things that make everyone unique. In terms of careers to pursue, my China experience has encouraged me to think about jobs that let me deal with the everyday man that exists in every nation. This trip was my first time going to a foreign country; before this, the farthest had traveled was to San Francisco. Going to China made me confront my ignorance and romanticism about the outside world, as previously I’ve only watched the news and made judgments on those statistics. Now I know that there are always two sides to the story, and an equal amount of importance should be placed on both sides.