“In learning a language, you open your eyes and mind to a whole new world of opportunities and people,” says Henry O’Connor ’24. As a Critical Language Scholarship recipient, he will spend the summer immersed in Mandarin.
The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program grants students the opportunity to spend eight to ten weeks studying one of 15 critical languages. The program includes intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains. CLS winners traditionally study abroad in the summer, however, because of the pandemic, the program will take place online. CLS, a U.S. Department of State program, is part of an initiative to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity.
CLS is O’Connor’s third language scholarship program involvement. In high school, he took part in a year-long exchange with Rotary International in Thailand, where he studied Mandarin and Thai and explored Chinese and Japanese languages. He has also been recognized as a Thailand Exchange Student of the Year and is an Eagle Scout.
O’Connor currently studies Mandarin at Oberlin College as well as taking an online Mandarin program with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). The program includes 20-plus hours a week of guided language instruction and tutoring as well as cultural sessions.
“While I could talk about fascinating linguistic concepts or the beautiful methods different languages use to express similar ideas, I can’t help but love the human connections that come from learning a language more than anything,” O’Connor says. “Having a common language instantly gives you common ground with other people, and from there you can start building relationships. It also allows you to engage with foreign materials in their native language, which helps you appreciate their beauty, without the degree of separation that translation creates.”
O’Connor, A politics major, O’Connor’s main areas of interest are East and South-East Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. He plans to join the Peace Corps and apply to graduate school after graduating from Oberlin. His goal is to pursue work in the Foreign Service with the endangered languages project, or possibly the United Nations.
Programs like CLS are incredible opportunities to develop skills and build competency in cross-cultural communication, O’Connor says. O’Connor can also appreciate the CLS for its professional benefits, explaining that the alumni grant program and non-competitive eligibility for federal work are very important career-wise, in that they will allow him more options in his career path.
He also plans to pursue other language development programs, such as the Fulbright Fellowship, which offers opportunities for recent graduates and graduate students to engage in international exchange and learning in more than 160 countries.
“The world’s language heritage is one of our most important relics and I want to do my part in ensuring its longevity,” O’Connor says. “Whatever I choose to pursue [in my career], I intend to make a difference in the world.”
He is grateful for the support of the professors, faculty, and mentors who assisted him with the CLS application, including Professor of Hispanic Studies Sebastiaan Faber and Director of Fellowships and Awards Nick Petzak.
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