West Grove teen studying Chinese as part of National Security Language Initiative
Anthony Zunino, pictured in Suzhou during his six-week stay in China.
By Steven Hoffman
West Grove teenager Anthony Zunino is the middle of a six-week trip to China as part of the National Security Language Initiative-Youth, a U.S. State Department program that selects students from across the country for scholarships to learn a language in a foreign country as a summer or year-long program.
Zunino arrived in China on June 25 and will depart for his return to the U.S. on Aug. 11.
In an interview by email last week, Anthony said that he has been spending four hours a day speaking, writing, and reading Chinese as an exchange student at the Suzhou Number One High School. He also spends time with Chinese host families who not only speak standard Mandarin to once another, but also the local dialect of Suzhou Hua. Consequently, he is speaking and hearing the Chinese language most of the day.
“It's been tiring but very rewarding,” Anthony said.
He is going to be a senior at Avon Grove Charter School this fall and after taking Chinese IV last year he has one more year to study the language at high school. Anthony said that the Avon Grove Charter School's diverse academic program had already given him the opportunity to study some Chinese.
“I've been taking Chinese seriously since the eighth grade, but in reality have been exposed to it from a young age,” he explained. “I attended a Chinese-American Community Center for my preschool, and fortunately at the Avon Grove Charter School we also had classes during elementary school in which we learned the days of the week, or how to count. Because of the presence of Chinese culture in my school during the New Year celebration, I've always been exposed to a culture which most Americans don't get to experience when they're in primary school.”
Anthony said that the opportunity to study abroad will help him immensely with his next year of studying Chinese at school.
“I felt myself hit a wall when it came to my linguistic development, and I know it's because 45 minutes a day of Chinese is not focused enough to seriously learn such a different language from English,” he said. “During my immersion experience, I hope to break through this wall, and achieve a level of ability that allows me to further develop my skills simply by conversing with my Chinese teacher on a regular basis back in America.”
At the Avon Grove Charter School, Anthony is the president of his class's National Honor Society chapter. He is also an Eagle Scout and student-teaches elementary school music as an Independent Study project.
According to Anthony's mother, Theresa Zunino-McFalls, only about 15 percent of the approximately 3,000 applicants are accepted into the National Security Language Initiative-Youth program each year.
Anthony explained that the application process for the National Security Language Initiative program started with a written application and a transcript evaluation. He also had to submit a list of extra-curricular activities, two essays, a host family letter, and a recommendation from a teacher. Once the application was approved, students were semi-finalists for the program. From there, applicants were interviewed one-on-one, with all those who make it past the interview stage being finalists. Each applicant could list three language choices and a preferred program duration. Zunino's choices for language were Chinese, Arabic, and Turkish. He asked for a summer program to study the language. Ultimately, he received his top language choice, Chinese, as well as the preferred program of study.
Zunino-McFalls said that after her son proposed the trip last summer he handled the details of the application process himself.
She said that the family was thrilled when he was accepted into the program.
“Trips like this are just something that we could never have imagined for ourselves at 17 and honestly would have been a little afraid to reach for,” she explained.
The immersion in the Chinese language is a challenge, but Zunino is already seeing the benefits.
“Despite the exhausting nature of the program, I feel my skills improving drastically,” he said. “I'm much more able to single out words now and comprehend entire spoken sentences. Without immersion, I always struggled with this because a lot of Chinese words sound very similar. Also, being exposed to different dialects and accents has made me more confident in my interactions with any Chinese person, not just a teacher or friend. I also have a great group of twenty American peers whom I am studying with, and although we always strive to avoid the dreaded 'American bubble,' it's nice to speak English sometimes.”
He is already looking forward to utilizing his enhanced understanding of the Chinese language at the Avon Grove Charter School in the fall.
“With these six weeks under my belt, I want to make the most of my last year learning Chinese at my school,” he explained. “In terms of academic opportunity, Chinese speakers are becoming more and more common among college applicants, as the language is now more commonly taught in schools. I know that receiving this scholarship will certainly increase my chance of attending high-ranking universities.”
Anthony also believes that this trip, as well as a previous trip to Italy, will help him as he studies international relations.
“In the future, I want to attend school for international relations and serve in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service,” he explained. “At some point, I'd also like to extend my reach to Peace Corps service, international business, or even domestic policy. As Chinese is becoming a language defined by globalization, I know that my skills will become extremely useful for a career in the future.”