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Madeline K. Spring, professor of Chinese and the director of the ASU Chinese Language Flagship Program and Confucius Institute, says learning to communicate well in another language should be an important part of a college education.
“Language is the core of communication and connection between humans,” she says. “The Chinese Language Flagship Program is a highly demanding honors-level program that attracts some of ASU’s brightest and most talented students.”
English literature student connects to her Chinese roots
Despite being the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants, Tina Cai, a Barrett Honors College junior majoring in English literature and economics, says she initially resisted the idea of embracing her Chinese heritage.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to be different from anyone around me,” Cai explains. “I think many children with immigrant parents experience the same feelings. I pushed hard against the idea of learning Chinese and insisted on speaking English at home.”
Cai, who grew up in Tempe, dropped out of a Chinese language-learning program at the age of 13, and continued to pursue other interests such as writing and music. After graduating from high school, Cai applied to Arizona State University and Brown University, and was accepted at both.
“I wanted to move to the East Coast for my education but realized that joining Brown without financial assistance could mean being in debt for years,” Cai says. “ASU offered a similar, yet affordable college experience.”
Cai joined ASU on a full scholarship from the Flinn Foundation, a Phoenix-based private philanthropic foundation that works with Arizona universities to retain talented students, and stumbled into the Chinese Flagship program during her freshman year. To her surprise, she enjoyed the language immensely and decided to pursue it again. After her freshman year she received a Chinese Language Flagship scholarship to spend the summer in China as a participant in ACC’s Intensive Language Program in Beijing.
“The program is not just about learning Chinese; it also allowed me to immerse myself in the Chinese culture,” she says.
Inspired by her experiences, Cai applied for and was awarded a Fulbright-Hays GPA Scholarship to attend the ACC Summer Field Studies program in June. The trip will include an intensive language program in Beijing, coupled with three weeks in rural China.
“I will present at teaching conferences and teach at summer day camps in rural China,” she says. “My presentation advocates for the importance of storytelling in education and in our lives. Specifically, I suggest that stories not only foster empathy, creativity and critical thinking, but they allow us to understand the world from distant and opposing points of view. At summer day camps, I hope to engage students in various modes of storytelling, including literature, music and drama.”
Cai based the presentation and lesson plans on her own experiences – both as a student in American public schools, as well as a teacher at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. She has critiqued inmate-produced poetry and prose under the Pen Project internship, a prison-university project that partners with New Mexico Corrections Department. The internship is part of the Department of English’s Prison English program that educates incarcerated individuals. She has also taught Shakespeare to inmates at the Florence State Prison in Pinal County, Ariz.
“The group feels like a community and allows these individuals to grow, learn and enjoy literature,” she says. “But I feel I may have benefitted from the program more.”
Joe Lockard, associate professor of English and director of the Prison English Program, says Cai has been one of the most active teachers in the program.
“Tina sees the challenge in prison teaching and responds,” Lockard says. “She’s remarkably perceptive of the implications of incarceration and how education can help transform these individuals.”
Madeline Spring, director of the Chinese Language Flagship Program and a member of Cai’s honors committee, notes that the list of Cai’s achievements is extensive.
“Tina is soft-spoken and, at times, self-effacing, and it is sometimes easy to overlook her extraordinary talents,” Spring says. “The more I learn about her wide-ranging academic and extracurricular achievements, the more I discover just how impressive she is. A Flinn Scholar, a National Merit Scholar, a Spirit of Service Scholar and an ASU Presidential Scholar, the list just goes on.”
Cai says she isn’t sure of a career path yet, but is interested in exploring different possibilities. For now, she wants to remain involved in prison education programs, as well as examine the shifts in modern Chinese culture in the form of creative non-fiction essays or a memoir for her honors thesis. She also plans on spending a Flagship Capstone year in China in the academic year 2014-15.
“The opportunities available at ASU have allowed me to follow my dream and experiment with becoming a writer while connecting with my Chinese roots,” she says. “It was difficult for my parents to see me grow up in a culture different than theirs. Watching me take an interest in learning more about my heritage makes them very happy.”
The Department of English and the School of International Letters and Cultures are academic units in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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