By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
A Del Norte High sophomore’s interest in becoming fluent in Chinese has expanded beyond the classroom.
Kira Bender, 15, spent part of her summer attending an all-expense-paid seven-week study abroad opportunity in China as one of around 625 students selected to receive a National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship.
The U.S. Department of State funds the summer and academic-year overseas immersion program for high-schoolers interested in learning the less commonly taught languages of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish.
The value of Kira’s scholarship was not announced, but it covered her travel, tuition and related academic preparation, language testing, educational and cultural activities that focused on language learning, orientation, meals and host family accommodations.
According to the program, its goal includes “sparking a life-long interest in foreign languages and cultures, and developing a corps of young Americans with the skills necessary to advance international dialogue in the private, academic or government sectors, and build upon the foundations developed through person-to-person relationships while abroad.”
Kira said she was “really shocked” about being selected, though “I was telling everybody I was going to go because I felt it was going to happen.”
Her interest in Chinese began during eighth grade at Black Mountain Middle School in Rancho Penasquitos.
“Most of my friends went to Chinese school, I thought it was interesting and asked my mom if I could go,” she said.
Kira took a San Diego Chinese Academy class in La Jolla on Sundays that focused on pronunciation. “It was an introductory class, so I was stuck with a bunch of kindergartners,” she said. “My friends were all in the advanced classes.”
There were a few older students, which made her feel not so out of place, and she was one of two with non-Chinese heritage.
“I was sad because (the children) were speaking Chinese better than me,” she said. “Then I realized, but I’m not actually Chinese, so I felt better.”
To study Chinese in high school, the Sabre Springs resident requested a transfer from her assigned high school to Del Norte in 4S Ranch, the only campus in Poway Unified School District that offers it.
While Kira said she had an advantage over her classmates during the first trimester of her freshman year, by the second she had to study in order to keep up. Now that she spent the summer in China, Kira said she again finds the class easy since she learned about half of the words this summer.
“When I got (to Changchun, China) my host sister had to translate everything ... but at the end I could have an hour-long conversation with the family,” Kira said. “The results were amazing.”
The 14 American students in the program were taught separately from Chinese students since their hosts’ academic year was in progress, she said. From 8 a.m. to noon she took language classes, while from noon to 8 p.m. there were cultural classes or community service activities. She called lectures, such as one on ancient Chinese medicine, “really interesting” even though the teachers often had to translate what the presenter said.
“I definitely have more knowledge about China, the country, culture and everyday life,” Kira said, adding she would like to return, but through this program she is only eligible for a year-long scholarship, one she might pursue between high school and college.
Kira said she is interested in a science or technology career that includes research where she can communicate in Chinese.
As for her first overseas trip alone and spending more than a week away from home, Kira said, “I had so much freedom there, I could stay out with friends, and it was just really different.”