When Notre Dame political science major Jee Seun Choi wanted to understand Taiwanese national identity, she didn’t just go to the Hesburgh library on campus. Instead, she applied for a Summer Language Abroad (SLA) grant so she could absorb the language and culture firsthand.
The SLA program at the University’s Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures provides awards of up to $5,500 to enable students to spend a summer abroad. Students selected for one of the competitive grants complete a challenging curriculum, participate service learning activities, and go through proficiency testing before and after their time abroad.
During her trip in 2010, Choi combined Chinese language studies at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei with research for a project on Taiwanese national identity. Her summer experience laid the groundwork for a related senior thesis about nationalism in Korea.
Choi, a native of Korea, had taken Chinese language courses in high school and college but says her speaking ability improved dramatically during her time in Taiwan.
“I was immersed in the culture, so I was forced to speak Chinese,” she says. “It was strange to speak to local students, but it helped me get a broader understanding of the culture and how people think and use different words that I wouldn’t have known were I not there. Small things like that were really helpful.”
Choi says she also learned from the diverse perspectives of fellow international students, including people from El Salvador and Burkina Faso. “You can talk in Chinese to someone from Africa, which is really cool,” she says. “There are people there from all over the world serious about learning Chinese, so they support each other.”
To fulfill the service component of her SLA grant, Choi volunteered to teach English at a local middle school.
“We had to make our own class, which lasted for three hours,” she says. “We were very nervous. We divided ourselves into four groups of two, and we had to teach around 60 kids. It was very demanding, but it was still fun.”
All her experiences studying, teaching, and living in Taiwan, she says, were extremely rewarding.
“It’s difficult to find opportunities outside Notre Dame that fund you to study a language, and I think that everyone should have some kind of experience like it.”