While many high school students spend the summer earning extra money at part-time jobs, going on vacation and spending time with friends, two Riverside Military Academy cadets will learn a different culture and speak a foreign language.
For six weeks, Jonah Esworthy and Mark Miller, both rising seniors at Riverside in Gainesville, will live with a host family in China thanks to scholarships from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. The program selects high school students who will immerse themselves in the culture in countries with “critical languages,” those not commonly taught in the United States. In addition to Mandarin, the program offers opportunities in countries with languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish, according to the program’s website (www.nsliforyouth.org).
Esworthy, 17, will spend two weeks in Xiamen in the Fujian Province of southeast China with a host family and then live and study at a Xiamen University for four weeks.
Miller, 18, will spend all six weeks with a host family in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province in southwestern China. The Sichuan province has sanctuaries that are home to 30 percent of the world’s population of Giant Pandas.
“I kind of envy him,” Esworthy said of Miller’s placement. “If I had to choose between the southeastern coast of China and going to play with pandas, I would go play with pandas.”
Both said they are looking forward to the experience, but they come into the trip from different perspectives. Miller will make his first overseas trip, while Esworthy already spent time outside the United States earlier in the summer in Israel.
Both cadets will be in China from early July to the second week in August. They have prepared by learning the native tongues. Esworthy just finished his third year of Mandarin and Miller will start his second year in the language at Riverside this fall. Both are looking forward to the experience of living in a foreign land.
“I hope to greatly improve in Mandarin Chinese and I hope to get a life-changing cultural experience living with a host family in China and all of the experiences they will introduce to me,” Miller said. “Any opportunities I get, I’m going to take hold of them.”
Esworthy said he is excited to meet his host family as well as the university students. He explained the university students are sometimes placed in large dormitories with up to eight students.
But he is anxious about one thing. He said he has heard many people in the area he is visiting speak Cantonese, not Mandarin.
“It’s definitely going to be weird to see the sun rise from where the sun sets here, the Pacific Ocean; I can’t wait,” Esworthy said. “Culturally speaking, I’m excited. Educationally, I feel like my brain is going to explode before I can experience the culture. Cantonese is another whole language. I don’t know how steep the climb is.”
Both cadets said they learned about the program from Zihan Lin, who teaches Mandarin at Riverside, and Adam Stumpt, a cadet captain who graduated from Riverside last month and spent last summer in China through the program. Esworthy said Stumpt helped them with information about the culture and Lin provided help “to try to break that language barrier that you possibly could have.”
Lin said she expects both her students to do well.
“I’m surprised we have two kids going,” she said. “This is thrilling news for us. I know this will be a great chance for them.”
She added the Mandarin program at Riverside should be a good foundation for both students.
“I’ve seen some kids who are good at Chinese, but not really good at listening (in the language),” Lin said. “Our program emphasizes this.”
Esworthy, who learned Hebrew in elementary and middle school, credits his mother, Eileen, with his decision to study Chinese in high school. She saw how well he did in Hebrew and believed he could handle Mandarin, which has a reputation as a difficult language to learn.
Esworthy said he likes to learn the “slang” and “curse” words of a language so he can “understand what to say and what not to say.”
Miller said he tried to teach himself the language, but “that didn’t work out.” He has progressed in Lin’s class and will be in the Mandarin Honors class in the fall.
“I can carry on a decent conversation,” he said.
While the program does not make requirements of students to serve in government agencies, the students said they understand program sponsors hope students will use their experience in critical languages in their careers.
“If you want to apply, NSLI scholars are at the top of the list,” Esworthy said.
“Using Mandarin as a career is something I am thinking about,” Miller said. “I’m considering going into international business and entrepreneurship. With the amount of trade the United States has with China, it has potential to be very vital to my career.”