We’re asking students, recent grads, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Courtney—a second grade teacher and University of Memphis alumna from Arkansas who minored in Mandarin Chinese.
1. Tell us a little about your middle and/or high school language learning experiences: Which languages did you choose, and did you participate in any experiences outside of the traditional classroom (clubs, travel abroad, etc.)?
At my high school, we were only offered Spanish and French classes as our world language options. Most people just took one or the other but I chose to do both. I remember my guidance counselors always asking if I was sure I wanted to do that and not take something else with my time! I’ve always enjoyed the process of learning languages though.
The summer after 8th grade, I was lucky enough to take my first trip abroad with my school. We went to Rome, Barcelona, and Madrid.
It was a dream and so much fun! It clearly had a major impact on me because I have had a constant travel bug ever since. I got to go again a few years later to Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels.
2. You enrolled in several languages at the University of Memphis as an undergraduate, including Spanish, Italian, and Chinese! Could you share some favorite memories from a class or a language/cultural activity on campus?
I took a couple of languages, but Chinese was where I invested all of my time.
Every Friday afternoon we had a language table with our Professor, Zhang laoshi 张老师, where we would practice our Chinese skills together. It was extra fun because Zhang laoshi 张老师 would teach us a lot of cultural aspects of Chinese that we didn’t always get in class. She even taught us how to set up WeChat accounts!
I remember one year the Confucius Institute at the university held a Chinese New Year party. Even though I was still only beginning to learn Chinese, my friend and I wanted to go. It was so much fun getting to hang out with so many people, and they taught us how to make dumplings which I quickly learned is not an easy process. But after we (tried) to make dumplings with everyone, we got to eat them all too!
3. Please share about your study abroad experience in Shanghai—how did it come about? Any advice or tips for fellow learners considering studying abroad?
I think it was just after my freshman year of college, a lot of my Chinese language classmates went on a summer course to the U of M’s sister school in Wuhan.
I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t go, but I remember having serious FOMO of missing out on all the fun they would have together. However, when they came back, one of my classmates told me that I should actually skip out on Wuhan and go to one of the major cities in China like Shanghai.
At first, I was not that into it, but when I told my best friend, Emily, she was like “Courtney! You have to do a study abroad!”
She definitely convinced me right then, because right after that I walked down to the study abroad office and talked to them about my options.
In the end, I chose to do an exchange with a program in Shanghai. I went alone—no one else I knew was going, and I only met other students when I got there. Which was so scary! But from the moment I got off the plane and met some other girls in my program, it just felt so right.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and still to this day Shanghai is the most incredible city I have ever been to.
I know this is said a lot, but if you are unsure about studying abroad, just go for it! I promise you will not regret it or forget it. It was such a time of growth and self-awareness for me. And fun too, of course!
4. After graduation, you worked in China! We’d love to hear more about your role/any preparation for the job. What would you say is the biggest lesson you took away from the experience or was the biggest surprise for you?
After my study abroad, I knew that I wanted to return to China one day.
I got TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certified with The Language House Prague and went to teach English. At the time, I wanted to go back so badly that I chose a job in Beijing instead of Shanghai.
Studying abroad is one thing, but living and working in a foreign country is completely different. Study abroad still has a lot of home comforts, while living abroad is such a test and character builder.
There are good times and bad, but you learn to power through all of it and grow and change in all of the best ways.
I was able to travel to so many different places and I met some truly amazing, genuine people—some of my best friends I met while I was in Beijing. We are all spread out across the world now—from the US, to the UK, and even to South Africa.
I did try and move back to Shanghai, but I had some visa problems and had to leave. At the same time, Covid-19 first hit and I ended up being stuck here in the States. It really all worked out though because I took a job as a second grade teacher and I realized how much I truly do love teaching. I have been working towards my U.S. teaching license and hope to go back abroad one day to teach in international schools.
5. Who most inspires and motivates you along your language journey?
Having a solid rock to fall back on makes all the difference when you move your life abroad. I’m so thankful for my mom. I got my travel bug from her, only she was not able to fulfill all her travel dreams. I think that’s why she always encourages me to go for it—no matter where or when.
When you are from a small town in Arkansas, most people hear “China” and get those wide, skeptical eyes. But I remember telling my mom I wanted to study abroad in China—she loved that idea.
When I told her I wanted to move to live and work in China, she never made me doubt my decision and even went with me to get some documents ready for my visa. She’s always told me “You can do anything you set your mind to” and I fully believe she is a huge part in living out these wild dreams of mine.
She also told me I would be a teacher my whole life—and look where I am now.
Complete this thought: “Learning another language means…”
Learning another language means growth. Learning a language is inspiring.
It will connect you with other people and places that you may never have thought you’d be connected with. It allows you to connect with cultures completely different from yours.
It’s true when they say that learning another language opens your mindset. I truly believe that I would not be the person I am today without my language journey of learning Chinese, Spanish, Italian, French, and small bits of others here and there.
Check out our Connect with Mandarin, Connect with French, Connect with Spanish, Connect with Italian, and Language Programs & Funding pages to explore language scholarships, university programs, testimonials, and more! And, as always, visit @LangConnectsFdn on social media to share your story with us.