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Teens gain global experience at ASU Chinese language camp

woman helping student make keychain

Phoenix educator Sophia Lee helps Dominique Reichenbach, 18, start a Chinese knotted keychain during the ASU Chinese Language Camp: From STARTALK to Flagship, on the Tempe campus, June 17. The 15-day intensive residential program for eighth- to 12th-grade students offers an introduction to Chinese language and culture.
Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News

June 18, 2015

Eventually, Dominique Reichenbach plans to travel the globe as a United States Foreign Service Officer. But today she’s learning how to tie Chinese knots.

Sitting in the basement of the Language and Literature building on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, Reichenbach maneuvers a length of silky green string over and around the yellow one beneath it, passing it through a loop and pulling it tight. Her face is stern and her eyes are trained on the task before her as she repeats the step, on the opposite side this time.

At the front of the classroom, instructor Sophia Lee is explaining that the most common color for Chinese knots is red because the color is considered lucky in Chinese culture.

It might not seem like a clear path to her end goal, but these knots can help bind Reichenbach’s present with her future.

A recent graduate of Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale who will start at Barrett, The Honors College this fall, Reichenbach is participating in the ASU Chinese Language Camp: From STARTALK to Flagship. It’s a two-week residential program that offers motivated eighth- to 12th-grade students the chance to expand their knowledge of Chinese language and culture through intensive language instruction and hands-on cultural activities.

The camp is an extension of ASU’s expanded presence in and relationships with China to enhance global research and education.

“Politically and economically, China is playing more of a leading role on the world stage these days, so it becomes very important for Americans to get to know the culture and the country more, in order to be able to interact and communicate with [Chinese people],” said Xia Zhang.

Zhang has been a senior lecturer in Chinese at ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures for 13 years. During that time she says she has seen “way more” students opting to study Chinese language and culture.

But ASU didn’t have any programs like STARTALK to help foster that interest. So, about seven years ago, Zhang wrote a grant proposal to implement the program at ASU and it was accepted.

Funded by the U.S. National Security Agency, the STARTALK language learning program was established in 2006 as part of the National Security Language Initiative to expand national capacity in critical languages. ASU's STARTALK program in Chinese began in 2009.

Tempe Preparatory Academy rising sophomore Emma Moriarty appreciates the authenticity of the STARTALK program.

“I just love how close to the culture you get here because most of the teachers are from China, so they get to share their experiences and share what it was like growing up there,” Moriarty said. “And in class, if we ask a question, they explain it to you [in Chinese], so it really forces you to fully try to understand the language.”

In addition to lessons in Chinese language and culture, the program boasts a living-learning setting, where participants gain first-hand college life experience by living on the Tempe campus in student housing and attending classes taught by ASU faculty in campus classrooms.

After completing STARTALK, students are encouraged to apply to the ASU Chinese Flagship program in the School of International Letters and Cultures. The undergraduate program is designed for Mandarin language learners who seek to achieve superior language proficiency while pursuing degrees in the academic major of their choice.

“For me, personally, I have seen [the students] grow a lot. Not only in their language skills, but also I can see that they have become more independent … ,” Zhang said. “They grow as people.”

Some information was taken from a 2013 feature by Roxane Barwick of ASU’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership. That story can be read in full here.