Relearning Her Mother Tongue
Alina Shen grew up speaking Mandarin at home, but her fluency slipped as she went through New York City's public schools. "They didn't have the resources to support instruction in Chinese," she says. Her parents were Americanizing, too; they had been older teenagers when their parents, who had come earlier, sent for them. Although Shen spent years in weekend Mandarin classes, English became her dominant language.
"I will always feel most connected to the tight-knit Chinese-American communities in Chinatown, Flushing and smaller neighborhoods where I grew up," says Shen (CUNY Baccalaureate and Macaulay Honors College at City College, '17). "I volunteer with Chinese-Americans who identify as working-class and are non-English-speaking. I want to continue working around issues that affect my extended family, as well. If you're going to reach cultural understanding and discuss civic engagement with people who aren't fluent in English, you need to speak their language."
In Summer 2016, she will take a major step toward relearning Mandarin, thanks to a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship to study in Taiwan for 10 weeks. This fully funded overseas language and cultural immersion program for undergraduate and graduate students seeks to broaden the base of Americans who can speak languages that are rare in the United States, from Azerbaijani to Urdu. Recipients are expected to continue studying the language and to use it in future careers.
Shen has studied abroad before in pursuit of her unique CUNY Baccalaureate major, Critical Social Change: Public Policy and Ethnic Studies.
Through Macaulay Honors College, she received a William R. Kenan Fellowship to Cape Town last summer. She studied the truth and reconciliation process that has mediated South Africa's transition out of apartheid. "We heard from University of Cape Town students about their struggle against racialized oppression. While we were dorming in a beautiful place near the president's home, we visited the townships, where people still lack sanitation and clean water more than two decades after apartheid ended."
Another Kenan grant sent her to Argentina for winter session courses in neoliberalism and Spanish. "It was really interesting to compare neoliberalism and social change in Argentina with what I'd seen in South Africa. The citizens and workers in each country not only call upon their state for human rights and adequate standards of living, but also come together, often at great risk to their personal safety, to demand it."