CHS Senior Spotlight: Ivana Awuah

CHS Senior Spotlight: Ivana Awuah
Posted on 11/10/2023
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During the height of COVID, I found myself intrigued by language learning, and the idea of studying abroad to improve my learning. This past summer, I was placed in Taipei, Taiwan, for six weeks of language learning and cultural exchange through the 
U.S. Department of State’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). This program was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had because it taught me how to navigate through cultural differences, the effects of language learning, and reassured me of my future career goals.

One reason why my participation in this program was life-changing is because it caused me to understand cultural differences and their impact. While in the program, we had four hours of language classes each day, then cultural lessons on evenings and weekends. Living in Taiwan gave me strong impressions about the Taiwanese, but also gave the Taiwanese I met understanding about me. As a dark skin Black woman with brown and white braids at the time, I received many different reactions from the Taiwanese, a mainly homogenous people. One day, while on an excursion at the Ri Xing Type Foundry, a historic printing press, I felt a hand ruffling through my hair. I turned around to find an older Taiwanese lady looking at me inquiringly. In Chinese, she asked me if my hair was real or fake, to which I backed away and replied that it was half real, half fake. The interaction seemed off putting to me, but I soon realized that it was not from a place of ignorance she asked me that question; she displayed sincere curiosity because I looked different than the typical Taiwanese teenage girl. Our cultural differences led us to approach the situation in different ways. I realized that, sometimes, I don’t have enough cultural context to create opinions. This experience emphasized the importance of being open-minded and taking the time to introspect before jumping to conclusions. 

NSLI-Y also taught me that language learning has multiple benefits. While walking the streets of Taiwan, a Taiwanese man advertising his restaurant said that he liked my hair. I responded with “Thank you” in Chinese, to which he seemed astonished. We engaged in a small conversation, which he ended by saying “Thank you for taking the time to learn our language.” After that, I pondered what he said. I began studying Mandarin because I thought the language was intriguing from an English speaker’s perspective, but upon hearing how my language abilities touched him, I learned that taking the initiative to learn about another group of people had purpose. That day led me to learn more about Taiwanese cuisine, and left him with a good, or better, opinion of Americans.

Most importantly, not only did my participation in NSLI-Y aid me in learning the Chinese language, but it solidified that I wanted to have a future in the foreign service. Living with a host family, I learned the perspectives of those living in a place of diplomatic tensions, realizing the weight of politics in the lives of regular citizens. While in Taiwan, we had the chance to meet and talk with the directors of the American Institute in Taiwan. Hearing about their journeys to different countries and their roles as foreign service officers, I realized how important diplomacy is in high-tension countries or territories, such as Taiwan. It convinced me that a career in foreign service is where my passions lie.

In conclusion, NSLI-Y not only aided me in raising my level of fluency from novice high to intermediate mid, but also gave me many lessons to take home and apply to my daily life. NSLI-Y has made me the person I am today through language learning and cultural exchange in a foreign country.