Turlock resident Ashish Thakur began his senior year of high school feeling a bit more cultured, having spent six weeks of his summer learning Mandarin in China as part of a prestigious federal program.
Thakur was selected from a competitive pool of 3,300 applicants as one of 660 students who studied foreign languages in various countries over the summer through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth — a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While Thakur chose to study Mandarin, students had the opportunity to learn other languages like Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish firsthand while studying abroad in each respective language’s country.
NSLI-Y is part of a multi-agency U.S. government initiative launched in 2006 to improve Americans' ability to communicate in select critical languages, to advance international dialogue and increase American economic global competitiveness.
Thakur traveled to Chengdu, China, where he was completely immersed in the country’s culture for six weeks while living with a host family and receiving formal language instruction. Thakur was the only student in his group who wasn’t a native Mandarin speaker, but was able to progress to the intermediate level of the language during the six weeks. It is the fourth language Thakur has studied.
“I think that it was definitely an experience that felt too short. It was extremely phenomenal,” Thakur said. “Going in I thought I was just going to be learning Mandarin, but I ended up taking in so much more.”
Between living with his host family, visiting various sites in China with them and interacting with other students in his group and in class, Thakur was able to learn Mandarin at both an interactive and cultural level, he said, and being surrounded by others in the program who had the same goal as him was motivating as well.
“This program really showed me that you must really visit a country and see its cultural minutiae; meet the people, see their art and history up close. Being able to stay with such an accommodating host family showed me that a country like China is incredibly different from what you might read in a textbook or see in the news,” he said. “Of course, having the opportunity to immerse myself in an environment where I was forced to use a language initially unfamiliar to me definitely placed me in a situation where I was forced to adapt and overcome these language barriers at a rate that a rote educational environment simply would not have been able to give me.”
By living with a host family, Thakur was able to learn about the Chinese culture in a different way than he had in the U.S., he added, visiting landmarks like the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas and other rare animals), the Library of Shuangliu (an area of 17,000 square meters and a collection of 700,000 books, including 350,000 paper books, 350,000 electronic books, more than 1,000 electronic journals, more than 160 electronic Chinese newspapers and 500 electronic books), and the Shuangliu Old People’s Home. Between these outings helping out with simple tasks around the house, Thakur was able to see the differences and similarities between Chinese and American cultures; for example, how they treat their elders.
“I remember my first night getting to my host family’s home after a 3-hour flight from Beijing to Chengdu, prior to which my friends and I had been climbing the Great Wall for around half the day. I arrived not only tired but very hungry. My host mother sat our whole family down: my host father, Hugo my 13-year-old brother, Eric my 8-year-old brother, and Mao Mao who had just turned two,” Thakur recalled. “My host mom laid out a fresh plate of steaming hot dumplings and without a second thought, I reached over and started shoving dumplings into my mouth. My host father looked strangely and everyone around me began laughing. I was confused until my host brother explained that it is traditional Chinese to wait for elders to take the first bite of food before anyone else starts eating.”
An aspiring doctor, Thakur also volunteered extra time at the local rural hospital, helping patients in Mandarin and working to treat elderly diabetics.
“It inspired me to move forward in my own career so that I can one day help to better treat people living in rural areas here,” Thakur said.
Stateside, Thakur stays busy through not only his participation in the Modesto High School International Baccalaureate Program, but also by tutoring fellow students and establishing different ways through which they can better their educational experiences.
He created the Ashish Thakur Science Foundation, which helps local students earn scholarships, and a Kids Who Code Camp, where he mentors junior high school students in computer programming. Most recently, he started a project called Educate to Eradicate DM II, or Type 2 diabetes mellitus, to teach underserved community members about how they can prevent the disease by encouraging healthy diets and physical activity in children.
It was Thakur’s interest in medicine that inspired him to apply for the opportunity to learn Mandarin in China, he said.
The high school senior also recently received his American College Testing score back, on which he scored a perfect 36. According to ACT.org, only two-tenths of one percent of students who take the ACT earn a perfect score.
Students looking to experience an adventure abroad similar to Thakur’s can apply for the 2020-21 NSLI-Y programs until Oct. 30 at https://www.nsliforyouth.org. The U.S. Department of State conducts study abroad programs for over 1,000 American high school students and approximately 3,000 foreign high school students each year. Visit https://exchanges.state.gov/highschool for details.