Interview with Boren, Gilman, and Critical Language Scholarship Recipient: Hiram

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Hiram Rios is a graduating senior studying Economics and International Studies with a minor in Chinese Language. While at USF, he has participated in four study abroad programs, including “China: Learning in the Culture Tier I,” “China: History and Culture” with the Honors College, “Germany: Beyond the Classroom,” and the State Department’s “Critical Language Scholarship” program in Suzhou, China. Additionally, he has received four national scholarships to fund his studies including an $80,000 international affairs fellowship that includes a five-year contract in his dream career in the Foreign Service. Furthermore, he has a received a Boren National Security Scholarship and a Gilman International Scholarship.

What are the top reasons you decided to study Chinese?

Music was my first passport to China. I have played violin for over a decade now, and when I was 14 years old I was offered a spot performing in the ‘Salute to the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ orchestra in China. Prior to that experience I knew little about China, but after performing at and touring the Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, and Olympic Plaza in Beijing as well as the Bund in Shanghai, a Pandora’s Box of curiosity had opened. Therefore, my top reasons for studying abroad in China while at USF were the opportunity to re-live those cherished memories, to get a more in depth look at the history and philosophy I had studied, and most importantly, to master the Chinese language in pursuit of employment with the U.S. Foreign Service.

If you were to compare yourself now to who you were before studying abroad, how are you different?

It is undeniable that study abroad transforms a person. In my eyes, I have grown into a different person after each and every study abroad opportunity as I learn and integrate positive aspects of each culture I visit into my life. When I first came back from performing in the Olympic Orchestra in 2008, I felt myself consumed in a hunger for knowledge and a curiosity for adventure that I had never experienced before. That trip opened the floodgates to ‘freedom’ in the sense that fear never holds me back from exploring new places (domestically or outside of the U.S.). Now I am prone to taking weekend trips around Florida, or even to D.C. or New York. After returning to China in 2013 for two USF programs and an independent study, I returned with a renewed discipline and appreciation for balance. I began meditating as a way to control stress and found myself working at 110%, which even then felt little compared to my course load in China. From my trip to Germany and subsequent return to China, I gained an increased interest in international politics, and now I find myself reading more from Xinhua News, Der Spiegel, the China Morning Post, and the Shanghaiist than I read on Facebook. Every student will have a different experience abroad, but I personally developed myself cognitively and feel that I am more independent, mature, informed, curious, and confident than ever before.

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Forbidden City

The Boren Scholarship and Critical Language Scholarship are very competitive. What do you believe are the key ingredients to getting accepted into these programs?

Although these programs are very competitive, the first step towards winning one is being a competitive candidate. In the surface, this means that you are a perfect fit for the programs. The Boren programs are funded by the National Security Education Program and are thus looking for candidates that are interested in pursuing careers in the intelligence community, the State Department, the military branches, and any other priority branch of the federal government. The CLS program (Critical Language Scholarship) is funded by the Department of State and they are looking for candidates who are interested in working for them in the Foreign Service, Civil Service, State Department internships, or related careers. Additionally, both of these programs give preference to anyone looking to master a language they will later use in their career, as well as to those with much experience in formal language training. In fact, some CLS programs only accept students who have had at least one or two years of college-level language training. The next step is gathering leadership experience. The difference between leadership and volunteering is that volunteers have experiences, while leaders have accomplishments. I would recommend being active in organizations and societies that are relevant to the country or language you are studying, such as the Confucius Institute, Chinese Language and Culture Club, and Chinese Culture Festival if you are interested in going to China. Lastly, I encourage everyone to work with the Office of National Scholarships in order to make sure your application is as competitive as it can be. They help you in every step; from selecting a program or scholarship and helping you gather your ideas, to proof-reading and giving you feedback on your applications.

Describe your experience on the Critical Language Scholarship Program. Where did you go, how long did you stay, and what did you learn?

As a word to the wise, I’d like to first give full disclosure that the CLS program is an intensive language program. This program is not intended for someone who wants to enjoy an easy-going vacation in Asia… in fact, it is just the opposite. However, the hard work will pay off ten-fold as the program is designed for you to leave an intermediate level and enter to an advanced understanding of Chinese. This past summer I spent roughly nine weeks in Suzhou, China (about a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai) taking the equivalent of a year of Chinese. Our classes included Spoken Application, Spoken Development, and Reading and Writing. A lot of our material consisted of advanced topics that would be followed by class discussions, reports, presentations, and competitions. As opposed to an intermediate program, some of our topics included genetically modified vegetables, U.S.-China relations, democracy, the Ukraine Crisis, the Dollar-RMB exchange rate, human rights, perceptions of beauty, etc. For the more practical writing class, we focused on drafting e-mails, memos, itineraries and introductions for future employers. As one of our final exams, we created and formatted a Chinese resume and had a mock job interview where we had to promote ourselves, articulate our skills, and describe our experiences all within the confines of Chinese culture and language.

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Teaching English at a rural elementary school in Jiangsu province, China

What are the stipulations for being a Boren Scholarship recipient, and how do your personal, academic, and professional goals align with the program’s goals for studying less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to the U.S.?

In order to be eligible for the Boren program you must be a U.S. citizen, a high school graduate, a matriculated student in an accredited school in the U.S., and applying to a study abroad program that meets home institution standards in a country outside Western Europe, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. However, Boren also awards fellowships for graduate students so I would encourage anyone interested to visit their eligibility page on their website. My career goal is to work in the economic cone of the Foreign Service utilizing my language skills and working at an American embassy or consulate in China. Therefore, the Boren Scholarship was a perfect fit for my career goals, but also for my academic goal of receiving a Master of International Affairs degree with a specialization in East Asia. By being proficient in mandarin Chinese and working hard to accrue leadership and academic accolades, I have been awarded a State Department fellowship that includes a five-year post as a Foreign Service Officer. Through the opportunities offered by USF and the Office of National Scholarships, I will be able to reap the rewards of learning a critical language and I will be working in my dream field utilizing the language skills I worked so hard to attain.

What have your friends and family thought about your decision to study abroad multiple times?

Although my family and friends have been very supportive, they also were very apprehensive about my decision. They feared the unknown and thus were worried about safety, environmental/health concerns, and other possible dangers. Every time I leave it’s hard, but luckily FaceTime and Skype make it easy and free to communicate frequently with family and friends. Additionally, by using a VPN (Virtual Proxy network) to access Facebook, Instagram and other social media, my family and friends were able to keep up with my every move and thus didn’t worry too much. Additionally, since I secured funds for all of my trips through scholarships and grants, none of my trips were a financial burden to my parents, making it easier for them to agree.

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Jinan Springs in Shandong province, China

How did you deal with culture shock?

Culture shock is an inevitable part of travel that surfaces in many forms and can be brought on or alleviated depending on your behavior. For me, I thought that travelling to China for a third long-term stay would mean a summer without culture shock, however that is never the case. I encountered culture shock after getting sick multiple times and having to go a rural hospital. It wasn’t so much the quality of care that got to me, but the frustration of feeling ill and not having anyone to care for me. It was also difficult for my family, as my parents and grandparents were worried sick and weren’t sure if I could even get access to the medications they recommended. However, in the end I reached out to some other program participants who turned out to be very helpful and compassionate. They would check on me multiple times during the day, get me food and medication as needed, and keep me company when I felt down. My recommendation to any study abroad participants is to leverage their group; make friends both with host-country students, as well as other program participants. Those are the friends that will become your support group and they will make you feel at ‘home,’ even if you are literally on the other side of the world.

What was the best $10 (or less) that you spent on the trip and why? 

I think the best souvenir I have ever purchased for under $10 has got to be the ‘World Heritage’ coins they sell at the Chinese World Heritage Sites. I have bought them at both Mount Tai and the Shaolin Monastery. They make great gifts, but they also immortalize the tradition and history preserved at these spots. The best meal I have gotten in China for under $10 has got to be a plate of ‘Japanese Curry Fried Rice’ (日本咖喱炒饭) in Suzhou, Jiangsu. Although this dish is by far my favorite, most of us on the CLS program ate satisfying meals for under 20 RMB (roughly $3.22). In smaller cities and towns, you can have a basic lunch consisting of rice, a protein and vegetables or soup for under $1.50.

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Great Wall of China

What is your favorite memory from studying abroad?

My favorite memory from studying abroad definitely has to be the night I spent at Mt. Tai. Mount Tai (泰山) is a religious mountain in Shandong province where the emperor used to do a yearly pilgrimage and private ceremony where food and jade ritual sacrifices were made. The highest peak is almost a mile high (over 5,000 ft.) and there is a temple and town up there above the clouds. I have had the pleasure of hiking the mountain twice in 2013, but the second time was a life-changing experience. I hiked up the mountain with my fellow ‘China: Learning in the Culture – Tier I’ students until we reached the ‘South Gate to Heaven.’ By that time, we were completely exhausted and our legs were reduced to jelly as we climbed up the last steep part on all fours. Once at the top, the view was nothing but enchanting; mountains, towns, and clouds as far as we the eye could see. We ended up spending the night at a mountain lodge at the peak, and woke up at 4am to rent some ‘Mao Zedong winter coats’ and climb to the temple. Once at the temple, the clouds were literally passing right through us and our hair felt slick to the touch. It was completely amazing! A sea of clouds! You could barely see a few feet in front of you and the only light around was from the lanterns at the temple and a couple of flashlights held by weary travelers. Once we made it to the temple, we perched ourselves up on some large rocks and watched as the sun, a tiny marble in the distance, slowly made its way up the horizon and painted everything in its path with lovely hues of purple, orange, and blue. That was one of the most surreal experiences I have had in my lifetime, and we ended it with meditation at the Buddhist temple. That sunrise alone would be enough for me to make the long journey back to China again.

What do you recommend taking to China on study abroad, and what do you recommend leaving at home?

Most people would be surprised to hear that when I travel to China I usually only need one medium-sized bag. This is due to the fact that most things that you’ll need for an extended stay in China are found inexpensively in the host country. However, there are a few things I recommend for first-time China travelers because there are other things that you definitely will not find there. I would recommend packing a lot of deodorant. Deodorant is not popular in China and thus it is hard to find and also very expensive. Additionally, I would recommend packing a first-aid kit with Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, cold medicine, and anything you may need as these can be found in China but require an advanced level knowledge of Chinese. Also, make sure to purchase a power adapter with a converter! Some of the power adapters in China do not have converters and will fry your electronics (I know this from experience). Also, people in China are generally very thin and it is very hard to find clothing and shoes for people with a bigger build. I would recommend packing at least three pair of shoes, as you probably will not find anything bigger than a Men’s size 10 (U.S.). Lastly, I urge everyone to pack a bunch of small gifts and several nicer gifts. It is typical in China to give a present when meeting new friends or classmates, and you also want to have a present ready when departing. For smaller gifts (acquaintances and causal friends) I recommend post cards, crafty things, or anything that is typical from your hometown. Please avoid clocks, pears, or anything ‘made in China’ as those are offensive. For a roommate or closer friend, I would recommend a gift costing no more than $20 as they will feel the need to reciprocate and you don’t want them to ‘lose face.’ I would leave at home any expensive jewelry or a prized possession that could be lost or stolen. Also, I would only bring a computer if you will need it for your coursework. My laptop was very useful this summer in Suzhou, however I never used it while at Qingdao so I would recommend speaking with your program director and seeing if your host university has a computer lab.

Hiram is a Office of National Scholarships Student Assistant at USF. He helps students prepare for and apply to competitive national scholarships. He can be emailed here.


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