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West Hall grad immersing herself into foreign culture
Justus honing Chinese skills in Beijing
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Sally Justus

Sally Justus is half a world away — literally.

The 2011 graduate of West Hall High School is spending the summer immersing herself into one of China’s biggest cities, Beijing.

But her trip is as much about education as it is pleasure.

Justus, who recently finished her freshman year at Harvard, is one of 100 students from across the world chosen to study at the Harvard-Beijing Academy.

For two months, Justus will tune her Chinese skills, soaking up all the language and culture China has to offer. She will condense about a year’s worth of classes into two months.

“It’s complete cultural immersion,” Justus said from her room in Beijing. “While I can study the exact same materials and have the same textbook during the school year, the difference here is I’m completely immersed in the language as well as the culture. That’s probably what makes it the most appealing. There’s no better way to acquire fluency.”

Actually, outside of speaking to family and friends, Chinese is all she is allowed to speak while overseas.

But Justus said languages have always had her attention. She is practically fluent in Spanish already.

She hopes her ability to communicate in various languages will support her desire to become a doctor.

“The reason I’m so into languages and really want to study another one in addition to Spanish is, as a doctor, I feel like it could be really easy to forget there’s a psychological aspect to treating people,” said Justus. “It’s not just about the body, and the best way for me to psychologically aid my patients is to be able to communicate with them.”

Fluency in English, Spanish and Chinese would allow her to communicate with more than 75 percent of the world’s population.

Justus was chosen for the program from a pool of about 800 applicants.

“It’s a really competitive program, so I feel really blessed to be here,” she said.

But getting into the program may have been the easiest task, at least compared to learning how to use the native utensils.

“I’m not very good with those chopsticks,” Justus said.

It’s just one of the culture shocks she had when she first arrived. But, she said, it didn’t take long to get acquainted.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and it’s not been too much of a shock for me,” she said.

Actually, she’s had the opportunity to spend some more time overseas.

Three weeks before the Harvard program started, Justus stayed with the family of a friend who lives in China.

She spent that time traveling, including a visit to the famous Great Wall of China.

One of her best memories, so far, has been climbing up steep entrance steps to the wall. She said it’s one of the most difficult entrances.

“I don’t think anyone over the age of 65 would muster the courage to even try that entrance,” said Justus. “It was basically straight up.”

But she said the encouragement she and her friend received from passers-by was inspiring.

“It was a really big reminder because sometimes when I turn on the news I’m afraid they’ll be something bad on TV where war is going on or people fighting,” Justus said. “It was a really good reminder that we as humanity really can all get along.”

And this trip may be the first time Justus has gone overseas, but it will likely not be her last.

“This is a huge step for me,” she said. “Before this, Harvard was the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

She hopes to join Doctors Without Borders, an international group of medical professionals dedicated to providing humanitarian care throughout the world.

She will continue to study Chinese, math and science upon her return to Harvard.

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