Lauren Buchholz

“Anyone can study Chinese if they are willing to put in the time; the language simply requires a lot of contact hours to master.”

For Lauren Buchholz, the path into the Chinese Language Flagship program had a few twists and turns. She was pursuing a major in Economics and Political Science with a minor in Spanish and one semester she had to find an additional course last-minute. Chinese was one of the courses still available so she chose that.

“I knew nothing about China,” Lauren says. “But although it is almost a cliché, I strongly believe that college is about expanding your horizons.” She found that she really enjoyed the language and delving into the unique meanings of each character. “Studying Chinese is a little like a puzzle, and I really like that challenge,” she says. But her progress felt slow. She took regular Chinese courses but was reluctant to join the Flagship Program. The idea of spending a year in China made her nervous. “It sounds funny, but I didn’t like the Chinese food I had tried in the U.S. and was worried about being so far away and not being able to find things I like to eat,” she says.

Terracotta Warriors in Xian

Photograph by Lauren Buchholz

But the more she studied, the more she wanted to improve, so she enrolled in a four-week summer intensive language program in Hang Zhou, China. Lauren enjoyed learning about the culture and found that authentic Chinese cuisine is a completely different experience than its American counterpart. But her grasp of the language still progressed slowly and the pronunciation was especially challenging. She noticed that one of her peers in the program who had started Chinese the same year she did, was far more advanced. The reason: he had enrolled in the Flagship Program.

“Anyone can study Chinese if they are willing to put in the time; the language simply requires a lot of contact hours to master,” Lauren says. That fall she finally joined the program. “I continued to struggle for the first few months,” she says. “The Flagship Program builds in an enormous amount of exposure to Chinese, and getting used to speaking it all the time was an adjustment.” But she felt that the Flagship Program is geared to help students learn. “Flagship students really want to learn, and the classes are extremely demanding, so the teachers are quick to correct any errors,” she said.

One day, as she was working on pronunciation for the Chinese ‘x’ sound–which doesn’t exist in English–her professor helped her distinguish the differences in pronunciation, and how to say it correctly. It was as simple as putting her tongue against her bottom teeth and making the “sh” sound, but understanding the subtle difference was a breakthrough. “I actually had to go back and relearn a lot of the words I had been saying incorrectly,” she says.

A student standing in front of a multicolored colored ice structure with Chinese characters
Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival, HeiLongJiang province, 2017
Photograph by Lauren Buchholz

Lauren was awarded a Boren scholarship to study abroad in China and achieved a superior level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and listening–a higher level of Chinese than most graduate-level students.

Lauren believes that everyone should experience the feeling of being in an environment where you don’t understand the language. “In the U.S. there is a lot of judgement–and even animosity–towards people who don’t speak English. If everyone could go abroad, even for just two weeks, and learn what that is like–not knowing how to order food, not knowing how to read the back of a medicine box, being lost and hoping desperately that someone will take it upon themselves to help you out–it would make for a more understanding society,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about agreement, but gaining an intellectual understanding of another way of life.”