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A student’s story: What it looks like from high school

October 14, 2013

Thanks to Madeleine for writing such a lovely essay to help parents understand what Mandarin immersion is like from a student perspective!

Madeleine Adams, Portland, Oregon

When I started out at The International School (TIS) in Portland, Oregon in the Mandarin immersion program at the age of two, my parents had no idea just how well it would prepare me for my future endeavors. There were several reasons my family decided to try language immersion. Both of my parents worked, my father at Intel and my mother at Hewlett Packard. After investing in two years of daycare, they wanted to try something that was more educational, which would also keep me occupied while they were at their respective jobs. They saw the advertisement for TIS in a parenting magazine, and my dad began researching it. Through his research he found that knowledge of a second language is not only highly useful in itself but also helpful in learning other subjects as well.

On a more personal level this was a way for me to get in touch with my heritage. My mother’s parents emigrated from China to the U.S. after World War II and Chinese became a way for me to keep in touch with my family and culture. And so my Chinese-American mother and Caucasian father decided to “give it a shot” and enrolled me in the only Mandarin immersion class at TIS, which at the time was only in its second year.

In the eight years that followed I learned not only the language, from native-speaking Chinese teachers, but also the culture. In my earliest years, the customs, traditions and Chinese classroom environment were the only school experience I knew, and it was normal to me. My teachers taught us early on how to handle a large workload. By the time I got to middle school the amount of homework I was given there was actually a relief! My TIS classmates and I were two years ahead of most other students in math. When we got to middle school we discovered that should we wish to pick up a third language, it would be much easier for us. Chinese immersion has truly been present in every decision I’ve made, everything I’ve accomplished and I expect this to remain so for the rest of my life.

I’ve had several chances to use my Chinese and to practice it. The first big opportunity I had was our Capstone trip in fifth grade, where my class went on an adventure with our families and teacher to China. That was when all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to come together. I was seeing the country I’d learned about my whole life. I got to stay in a boarding school with kids the same age as me in this new country. I became a part of China, a part of that school. That experience is still one of the ones that has shaped who I am today the most. The opportunity to learn, firsthand, what it’s like in other countries is so enriching because you can create ties, relationships you’ll never forget, with the people you meet in that country. I still feel that bond, that connection I shared with my roommate and with the kids in the class that helped me that entire week. I could even relate to them, and at the age of ten, this was something I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do. Because of my immersion education I knew the songs they sang, the stories they read, even some of the games they played! I learned how they were just like me, how even though they lived on the opposite side of the world they were still just kids like me. This experience shaped the way I see the world and has allowed me to be more open-minded as a young adult.

In addition to helping me open my eyes to other cultures and customs, my Chinese language skills have helped me academically. It’s something that has helped set me apart in school. Now that I’m applying for internships and summer programs, as well as preparing to apply for colleges, I’m seeing that it will set me apart even more on my resume.

Because I experienced firsthand Chinese culture and because it means so much to me, I jumped at the first chance I had to share my experience with my current school, the International School of Beaverton. In my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I co-founded our school’s chapter of the National Chinese Honor Society. We are currently working to open up a new side of Chinese culture to our fellow students. We plan events to help celebrate the Moon Festival and Chinese New Year, and show the modern side of such a rich and ancient culture. We are also hoping to reach out to younger students to get them started on a path to learning the language, as well as working to establish an exchange program so that our classmates not only improve their Chinese, but also so that they may learn what I learned, that kids in China are not so different from us.

Because I started so early in a Mandarin immersion program the language skills along with the study habits that I learned helped me become a more well-rounded student. In the summer of 2013 I was selected to be a part of the ASE (Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering) Program, which was run through Saturday Academy in Portland. My Chinese language skills were an interesting talking point during the interview process and my ability to speak Chinese allowed me to have an incredible experience during the course of my internship.

A big highlight of that summer was when a group of Chinese college students came from Nanjing Agricultural University to visit the innovation center and I got to talk to them about my project. I was able to use my Chinese to speak to them personally and because we had broken the language barrier we could talk freely about what we enjoyed doing and why we were studying what we were studying. It allowed me to relate to them on a whole new level. This was a wonderful experience for me because I have always imagined a career where my language skills would coincide with my love of science and innovation. That day, if only for a few minutes, I got to experience the crossing of cultural boundaries with science.

I don’t think there is any way to describe just how lucky I was to experience Chinese immersion as a child. My teachers instilled in me a love of learning and a desire to always push myself academically. My parents were supportive and embraced the learning environment that was so different from the one they had experienced as children. I’ve learned just how applicable my second language skills are to a variety of situations. Most importantly, I feel that this experience has made me more mature and independent. Ultimately it has prepared for anything the world might throw at me after I graduate from high school.


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