Camas High School senior Aran O’Day fell in love with world languages during a family trip abroad in 2017. O’Day was a middle-schooler then, and had never traveled outside North America.
“I’d been to Canada before, but this was my first trip abroad,” O’Day. “We went to Russia and seeing (Russian printed) on all the signs was really different. It kind of drew me into language.”
O’Day, 17, began self-studying Russian during his eighth grade year, but it wasn’t until a friend introduced him to Mandarin — the official language of China — that O’Day truly discovered his passion for world languages.
“My friend, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, showed me (Mandarin), and I was drawn to (the Chinese language) even more,” O’Day said.
As a freshman at Discovery High School, O’Day joined with some of his peers to encourage the Camas School District to offer Mandarin lessons at the projects-based learning high school.
A few years later, O’Day’s Mandarin teacher, Fangchi Koss, who teaches the Chinese language at both Camas and Discovery high schools, would tell O’Day about a national, merit-based scholarship program that could help him take his Mandarin skills to the next level.
The National Security Language Initiative for Youth, a United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program, promotes the study of eight world languages — Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish — and offers high school students the chance to earn a fully paid trip abroad to study language with native speakers.
O’Day competed with thousands of applicants and was one of 400 students selected to take part in the program’s 2002 overseas program.
The Camas High senior flew to Taiwan on June 17, following two days of preparatory training in San Francisco, and returned to the U.S. on Aug. 6. During that time, O’Day studied Mandarin with his study-abroad peers at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, stayed with a host family on the weekends and immersed himself in the Taiwanese culture.
The students were in quarantine for the first week due to China’s COVID-19 restrictions, but were able to explore the area near their hotel during the second week.
“I went out with some of the people I’d met (online) during quarantine,” O’Day said. “The first thing we did was go to a 7-11, which is a more interesting experience (in Taiwan). We picked out some items to buy … but we were nervous and scared to check out. The cashier asked us in Mandarin if we wanted a bag, but we didn’t know what she was saying.”
Eventually, though, the cultural immersion and intensive language courses worked their magic. Soon, O’Day was confident enough in his language skills to explore the city on his own.
“Going out forced me to speak Mandarin and build my confidence,” O’Day said.
In just seven weeks, O’Day’s Mandarin writing, reading and speaking skills jumped two levels, going from a “novice-high” to an “intermediate-mid” level in less than two months.
“Getting to speak and hear the language all the time helped,” O’Day said. “I picked up a lot listening to my host family talk.”
Some of O’Day’s favorite memories of Taiwan include not only the immersion into the language, but also the friends he made along the way and the “amazing food” he was able to sample.
“Everything was so cheap over there. My favorite was the corn dumplings at a restaurant near the school,” O’Day said. “One dumpling cost 19 cents. So we would go out and buy plates of them. And the corn in Taiwan was so much more flavorful. All of the fruit and vegetables taste different there — fresher – especially the corn and the bananas.”
O’Day was able to explore outside Taiwan with his program peers and his host family on the weekends.
“We visited a banana farm and went to a traditional district .. and we went hiking … explored the beach and went to the night markets,” he said. “My host family had a 19-year-old son, and a mom and dad. It was a really good match. They were super nice. And it was a pretty big house by Taiwanese standards.”
Now that he’s back in Camas, O’Day is settling into his senior year at the much-larger Camas High School after spending three years at Discovery High.
“It’s nothing negative against Discovery. They just didn’t offer Mandarin 3,” O’Day explained. “So, I’m trying to adjust to a new school. There is more homework and a lot of tests (at Camas High), but I feel like coming back from the summer program in Taiwan gave me the confidence to come back and do this.” In his personal time, O’Day — the son of Camas residents Aunna Elm and Ken O’Day — likes to go biking with friends and work on coding projects at home. He is a member of the successful Camas robotic team and said he plans to continue his passion for world languages following his high school graduation in 2023.
“I’m planning to apply for the yearlong program in Taiwan and, hopefully, go back for a full year,” O’Day said. “I would love to go back. And I could take a gap year, then go to a four-year college after that.”
O’Day is exploring 13 colleges, including the University of Oregon, that offer a hybrid major that would allow O’Day to combine computer science and Mandarin into one major.
O’Day said he would recommend the National Security Language Initiative for Youth program to any student who has a passion for world languages.
“If you’re not actually interested in language, you’re not going to succeed,” O’Day said. “If you’re genuinely interested in the language — even if you don’t have the best skills – you’ll (succeed).”
Scholarship recipients don’t have to worry about paying for anything except snacks and any souvenirs they might want to buy.
“Everything is paid,” O’Day said. “All of the flights, hotels, even the COVID tests are included. And there is a stipend for food. But if you want extra food or souvenirs, you do have to spend your own money.”
For anyone who might want to apply for a scholarship for next summer’s study abroad programs, O’Day recommends getting into a deadline-driven mindset.
“Applying wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he said. “For summer applicants, there is one essay and a letter to the host family introducing yourself and explaining why you want to learn (the language). … My advice is: if there is a deadline, get it done as soon as possible. Especially with the nitty gritty things like transcripts and health forms, you want to make sure you get everything in on time.”
Applications for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth’s 2023-24 programs opened this month and have deadlines coming up in October and November. To qualify for the 2023-24 summer program, students must have been born between July 10, 2004 and June 10, 2008. Previous language study is not required and students at all levels of language are invited to apply to the program. For more information, visit nsliforyouth.org.