HomeStudent VoicesNews & Views Ask Away: 5 Questions for a College Senior Bringing Support for Mandarin to Campus

Ask Away: 5 Questions for a College Senior Bringing Support for Mandarin to Campus


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Samara—a University of Oregon senior whose love for the Chinese language and culture led her to establish a local chapter of national non-profit Project Pengyou at her school.

"Ask Away: 5 Questions" banner image with Samara's portrait

1. Why Chinese, why Arabic? What first inspired you to start learning these languages, and has your motivation changed over time?

Since I was a kid I have been interested in Chinese culture. I grew up a part of the Asian community in my hometown and always loved watching the Chinese lion dancers perform at different community events. I later joined the team. My family also hosted many Chinese and exchange students who shared their cultural knowledge with me.

Then the summer before senior year in high school, through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y )—a program fully sponsored by the State Department—I studied abroad in Xiamen, China. The people I met there changed the course of my life. I received unconditional love and support from my host family who immediately took me in as their own. My relationship with them is a source of inspiration and drive to continue promoting cultural appreciation.

My time in China made me realize you should not fear a language barrier. Instead, you must run full speed into it with the intent of shattering all preconceptions it holds. By studying abroad, you find more similarities with your own culture than one would expect. You learn we have a shared humanity.

At the end of the day, all people are in search for love, success, and a purpose in life. We just each have our own lingual and cultural mode to get there.

China taught me that and has given me a desire to learn more.

I chose Arabic because I know nothing about Middle Eastern culture except for the stereotypes Americans have towards Islamic culture. I want to change that. I want to dispel those stereotypes and gain a true understanding of the Middle East, and the best way to do so is by going there. In January, I will be studying in Jordan through SIT’s Geopolitics in the Middle East program.

Project Pengyou group photo of students in matching tee shirts
The University of Oregon Project Pengyou 2018-2019 Executive Leadership Team
2. Can you share with us a little about Project Pengyou—what is it and what has your involvement been at UO?

Project Pengyou (meaning “friend” in Mandarin) is a national non-profit dedicated to empowering youth to improve U.S. – China relations. It establishes chapters in high schools and universities throughout America.

I found out about the organization through the Chinese Flagship program and attended the leadership training summit held at Harvard, then at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies the next year.

After the first summit I decided to establish the University of Oregon chapter.

I had witnessed the social gap between domestic and international students on my campus and wanted to create a space to replace that gap with friendship.

The Project Pengyou University of Oregon chapter is currently in its second year with an average of 60 attendees at events. Our events range from Speed Pengyou to Slang Exchange to Pengyou Talks on topics such as culture shock.

Project Pengyou group photo of students in matching tee shirts

3. Have you participated in other language learning or cultural initiatives on campus? Any ideas for activities other students could implement at their universities?

In addition to founding the Project Pengyou chapter, I established the University of Oregon Chinese Flagship Student Leadership Board. We implemented structure to our group that plans term events for the Flagship community and took on a greater role to promote the importance of Chinese studies.

Take initiative, take action. Don’t doubt your capability.

It took me longer than I wanted to start making moves to start the Project Pengyou chapter, but once I did it was as if everything fell into place. Ask yourself, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” That quote brought about the founding of our chapter, which I know has been a home base of love and growth for people in my community.

4. What was the greatest surprise or lesson you learned while studying abroad?

One of the best things is you make lifelong friends studying abroad. It’s one of the best things having connections to people all around the world. You meet back up after months or years and it feels like no time has past because your friendship is deep and pure. It’s thrilling and one of life’s greatest gifts.

5. Have you had a conversation or exchange in another language than English that was particularly meaningful or memorable—why?
Samara with her host family, Summer 2019

When I lived with my host family China still had the One Child Policy. I have a little sister, but my host mom always talked about how she wanted to have a second child. Three years after living with them, and three years after the policy was lifted, we got to reconnect. I met my little host brother who spoke better English than some American toddlers I know.

My Chinese also significantly improved since we last were together. In Mandarin I told my host mom of my journey founding the leadership board and Project Pengyou chapter and explained to her that her love and support is what drives me to keep studying and building a community. Tears streamed down both our faces. Our hearts were open, and we talked of our gratitude for being a part of each other’s heart family.

Conversations with her are moments that capture the essence of life and inspire me to keep learning.

What’s next for Samara?

“I have the goal of working for the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer. Before that I intend to go to graduate school to study international relations.”

Feeling inspired? Visit our pages dedicated to Mandarin and Arabic to explore language scholarships, university programs, student testimonials, and more.  Then explore funding opportunities, like the U.S. Department of State’s NSLI-Y scholarship administered by American Councils for International Education among our curated listings

And, as always, don’t forget to share your language learning story @LeadWLanguages on social media!