Sofia Pesantez ’24 is one of 685 college students from across the nation to receive the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study Mandarin — one of 15 languages considered critical to American security and economy.
While selected scholars would typically travel to a foreign partner institution in order to fully immerse themselves in the language, the program has adapted to the ongoing pandemic and took place virtually this year. After learning about the program through the Bechtel International Center, Pesantez said she was overjoyed when she was accepted.
The CLS program will not be Pesantez’s first time immersing in Mandarin and Chinese culture. When given the choice to study Spanish or Chinese in high school, Pesantez wanted to challenge herself and chose the latter. She also visited China through a foreign exchange program in 10th grade, where she lived with a host family for one month and taught English to elementary school children. She credits this experience as her reason for continuing to study Chinese at Stanford.
“I think that Chinese is a very intricate language, one that takes a long time to perfect. I’m always on my toes and I’m always learning something completely new,” Pesantez said.
As of last Friday, Pesantez completed an intensive eight-week Mandarin course taught at Dalian University in the Liaoning province of China. Although disappointed that she could not travel to China, Pesantez attended online classes taught by university professors, went on virtual tours and cultivated new friendships with local Mandarin-speaking students.
Pesantez said that remote learning allowed her to engage in the program while spending time with her family at home, particularly cultural activities ranging from tours to Dalian landmarks, Chinese calligraphy and a virtual talent show that gave her the opportunity to perform Mandarin songs like “Da Yu” (大鱼).
“I’m really close with my family, so it’s the best of both worlds,” Pesantez said.
Pesantez added that she used to be concerned about making mistakes with tones and words, but joining the program built her confidence in speaking Chinese. During classes, Pesantez recited passages from Chinese language and culture textbooks out loud and had one-on-one conversations with a professor or language partner.
“I used to be really shy speaking Chinese in front of others,” she said. “This program completely changed that for me because I’m just used to speaking in front of so many people now.”
Pesantez’s high school Chinese teacher, Wendy Yu, said that Pesantez took advantage of every opportunity to improve in the language. She took on leadership roles in her school’s multicultural club and performed Chinese songs at festivals.
“Some students might learn a language in high school because it’s required. To [Sofia], it’s different,” Yu said. “It’s really a language that she wants to own, to the point that she’s going to use it her entire life.”
Pesantez said that her first exposure to Mandarin dates back to fourth grade, when her mom encouraged her to attend a day camp with many Mandarin-speaking students. Kayley Ragazzini, Pesantez’s friend since pre-kindergarten, wrote to The Daily about Pesantez’s strong passion and drive for learning the language even when she was younger.
“Sofia’s multilingualism has shown me the beauty of learning about other cultures and their languages,” Ragazzini wrote. “She is really an inspiration to everyone, myself included, in showing what can be accomplished by working hard to achieve your goals.”
After the summer course ends, CLS scholars are expected to incorporate their language skills into their future careers. Pesantez said her goals to become proficient in the language stem from challenges her Spanish-speaking grandmother encountered when an interpreter misunderstood a doctor.
“She thinks it’s a lot more worrisome than it actually is because the wrong thing was told to her,” Pesantez said of her grandmother’s experiences at the doctor’s office. “I want to help fix that by being the doctor that is directly telling them what is wrong.”
Putting her goals into action, Pesantez currently works at Cardinal Free Clinics interviewing patients who only speak Spanish or Chinese for a research study about COVID-19’s effects on low-income communities. Currently a human biology major on the pre-med track, Pesantez hopes to continue to leverage her language skills to serve non-English-speaking patients.