In the heat of the summer, 17-year-old Kelsey Kirkpatrick hangs out in the living room with her cat, Rosie.
It’s a typical scene of a teenager at home over her summer break, with only one deviation: The Chinese characters posted above the couch.
They spell out “She nian da ji” (pronounced shah neeyan dah gee), literally translated to “Snake year big luck,” or “Good luck in the Year of the Snake.”
“Because this year’s the Year of the Snake in the Chinese zodiac,” she explained.
In a little more than a week, the Gainesville High School student will take her knowledge of the Chinese language and travel halfway around the world to immerse herself in the culture for the remainder of the summer.
It’s part of a federally funded scholarship, distributed by the U.S. Department of State National Security Language Initiative for Youth. Kirkpatrick was one of more than 600 recipients of the scholarship, with students from across the country spending their time this summer in foreign language studies in Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Persian and Turkish, as well as Chinese.
A summer in China is a big step for a student who didn’t initially have an affinity for the language.
“Really, the only reason I took Chinese is because I didn’t want to take French or Spanish,” she laughed. “Which is, like, the worst reason ever to take a language!
“But now I really do love learning the language,” she continued. “I love learning about the culture, and the people, and the customs.”
Kirkpatrick will leave June 24 for Xi’An (pronounced Shee-Yawn), in the Shaanxi (Shawn Shee) province. There she will stay with a host family through mid-August, taking Chinese lessons in the mornings and spending her afternoons exploring the area.
“It’s one of the oldest (cities) in China,” she said. “A lot of the architecture’s older, and I look forward to seeing that.”
Not only will this be Kirkpatrick’s first time visiting China, it will be her first trip out of the country.
“I’m really excited, though,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m nervous at all. I may be, once I get on the plane.”
Her studies and interest in Chinese are just part of her natural excitement about language overall.
“I like words, a lot, in general,” she said. “I’ve always liked the English language, before I learned any other language, because I felt like I could express myself using it if I learned it well enough.”
The rising high school senior is also a musician, playing the guitar and also having played the tuba in the high school’s marching band. She’s the president of the speech and debate team, and belongs to both the Chinese Club and the Chinese National Honor Society. She’s also a goalie on the Gainesville High lacrosse team.
While Kirkpatrick is leaving her options for the future open, she hopes to attend DePaul University in Chicago for a double major in linguistics and business.
“I definitely enjoy business and economics. Not so much the math aspect, but math is in everything,” she said, laughing.
She said she sees herself working internationally in the future, perhaps in marketing.
And she plans to continue extending her education in languages.
“My top three languages I want to learn besides English are Arabic, Spanish and Chinese,” she said. “And then from there, everything I possibly can ... Russian, French, German.”
It’s just a natural affinity she has for language and speech.
“I really want to be able to express what I want to say, even if no one else will understand it. If I can just say exactly what I want to say ... even if it’s in three different languages at once.”