Upon arriving in China, Nolan Nicholson couldn't understand the question a stranger asked in an elevator and struggled to recall the translation for "I don't understand" in the native language.
Ten weeks later, he was haggling with shop merchants and getting complimented on his Chinese by locals.
Nicholson and Miwako Schlageter, University of Nevada, Reno seniors and Honors Program students, recently returned to the United States from 10-week language courses in China and Japan, respectively. They received a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), which was established in 2006 to broaden the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages.
"It says something about our students, willing to go beyond his or her comfort zone, to go to another country," said Tamara Valentine, Honors Program director.
Nicholson and Schlageter are the fourth and fifth CLS recipients from the University since 2010, Valentine said.
Nolan Nicholson poses with
schoolchildren in China.
Miwako Schlageter stands in
front of the Fushimi Inari Shrine
in Kyoto, Japan.
The nationally competitive scholarship covered travel expenses, tuition, board and a stipend. Nicholson, a chemical engineering major with a business administration minor, studied Chinese at Soochow University in Suzhou, China. Schlageter, who majors in international business and marketing, attended Himeji Dokkyo University in Himeji, Japan, to study Japanese. She also minors in Japanese at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Valentine and Daniel Villanueva, Honors Program assistant director, guided Nicholson and Schlageter through the CLS application process. The annual summer program receives nearly 6,000 applications and awards about 500. Valentine sat on a panel to review applications for the CLS Punjabi program.
Entering the CLS program with a basic understanding of their languages, Nicholson and Schlageter intend to use their enriched skills to bolster their careers. Acknowledging China and Japan as economic powerhouses, Schlageter strives to align her interests in international business and Japanese, while Nicholson aspires to start a worldwide nanotechnology company.
"China and Japan are really important in developing the cutting-edge of that technology," Nicholson said. "I want to be able to directly connect with people working at the leading edge of that industry."
Coursework immersed students in grammar, listening, reading, writing and recitation exercises. After class, students met with language partners -- a native university student teaching English as a second language -- to study.
"You have work every single day, and you can't just skim by because you have to memorize conversations and present them in class," Schlageter said. "Instructors know right away if you didn't prepare."
In their free time, CLS students applied those skills in the city and at tourist attractions by hailing a taxi, ordering food in a restaurant and asking locals for directions in the native language. Nicholson took a weekend trip to Shanghai, China, while Schlageter visited extended family in Osaka, Japan.
"You can memorize things all you want, but as long as it's calm and peaceful in your hotel room or in your dorm room ... It's never quite the urgency that makes it stick in your head," Nicholson said. "Being in the middle of a line in a restaurant and trying to remember what the number for 'six' is -- that gets it in your head really quick."
While Nicholson and Schlageter departed East Asia with souvenirs -- regional snacks and translated books -- their two-month journey is priceless. For Schlageter, the CLS program encouraged her to have meaningful conversations with her family.
"I was talking to my aunt in Japanese, and we were talking about the issue of women's rights in Japan," she said. "To be able to have that conversation, you realize how much you didn't know."