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Erica Leong

College: Queens College
Awards: Fulbright U.S. Student Program, 2012

Learning the Lingo

There are many reasons Erica Leong applied for a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship to teach English in South Korea. Gaining empathy for her future English as a Second Language (ESL) students ranks high among them.

"I wanted to go into a society or country where everything is foreign, so I can say to my future students, “I’ve been in your situation, not knowing the language or the culture,'” she says. “It will make for more credibility as an ESL teacher.”

Not that she hasn't been introduced to the Korean language. She had a semester at Queens College, from which she graduated, cum laude, in spring 2012 with a BA in English. From that small launch pad, she's ready to vault into a six-week orientation with four hours of Korean every morning and the added boost she'll get from living with a host family.

"I was born in America and grew up on Long Island," she says. "My mom speaks Cantonese, so I can do conversational Cantonese." Chinese languages share roots with Korean, so there's the hope of something familiar to latch onto.

One of Leong's professors, David Leventhal, had suggested that she consider a career in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). After gaining TESOL certification, she began teaching English to Chinese immigrants at a Chinatown YMCA through Pace University's AmeriCorps program. She had visited Chinatown during childhood for church and recreation, but teaching there gave her a new perspective.

"You see the situation where people confront a language barrier; they're either put down or treated negatively," she says. "I want to minimize that because in America, you have to know English for everything."

Because the AmeriCorps program was tuition-free, "the students really wanted to be there. I felt really good when they asked me for help with real-life questions. One asked for help with an insurance form. Someone asked me to call about jury duty service because when they called, the person at the other end was talking too fast. One asked me to do a mock interview to prepare her to apply for a nursing position. They trusted me enough to ask me these things, and that makes me very happy. It's a class to learn English, but they know this is essential to their lives."

If things work out well in South Korea, Leong may seek to renew the Fulbright Fellowship for a year or two, but there's another option: the Peace Corps. "AmeriCorps allowed me to help a high-need community at home," she says. "The Peace Corps would allow me to do that internationally."