Riddick Blocker ’16 and Sam Alford ’19 have been awarded the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship to study in China this summer — all expenses paid.The highly competitive national scholarship will fund Blocker’s and Alford’s participation in an intensive, eight-week Chinese language living and learning experience, including a home stay, in Suzhou and Dalian, China, respectively.Approximately 550 U.S. undergraduate and graduate students are selected each year for the CLS program to study Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish or Urdu languages. The program provides fully funded, group-based intensive language instruction and a cultural experience that is designed to promote a mutual understanding and respect between those from the U.S. and abroad.The fact that two Wofford students were awarded this scholarship in the same year “speaks volumes to the quality of Wofford's Chinese department,” says Blocker, who is currently in his first year at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Before coming to Wofford, I spoke zero Chinese. In four years, I went from zilch to being able to have a conversation about geopolitics and the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street in America with a group of Chinese tourists in the San Francisco airport. Professors Zhang and Li are both phenomenal teachers who care deeply about their students, and their curriculum really helps you to make the language yours. Learning Chinese is an attainable goal,” he says. Blocker plans on using his Chinese language skills in the emergency room as a hybrid attending physician/medical interpreter in the future, and believes that studying Chinese is important, “especially in today’s political climate… Learning a language and its culture inoculates your mind against inflammatory (and more often than not, baseless) political rhetoric about the country and its people.”Dr. Yongfang Zhang, assistant professor of Chinese, says that both recipients were set apart from other applicants due to their high achievements in Chinese and additional fields of study. “They both have something beyond the minimum requirement," says Zhang. "Riddick had some previous study abroad experience, and he reached advanced mid proficiency according to the ACTFL guidelines at Wofford, which is two sublevels higher than the intermediate high level suggested for Chinese major graduates in the nation, and Sam has some previous achievements, such as placing well in the statewide Chinese Palmetto Star competition. The other reason they are strong candidates is that they also study in STEM fields, not just Chinese. This scholarship is looking for students who will use Chinese in their future careers.”This year is the first time Wofford has multiple winners and is the first time a Wofford student has applied after graduation. The deadline for CLS applications is early November, but Zhang will hold an information session and start preparing students for applications in September.“I started taking Chinese in high school on a whim,” says Alford, who hopes to combine the Chinese language with his interest in international affairs and environmental policy. His program in Dalian will include a specialized course focusing on environmental issues in addition to building language skills and providing cultural excursions. “It’s very far north—really close to the North Korean border. I’ll be studying at the Dalian University of Technology. It’s actually the same city that my high school Chinese teacher grew up in.”After his summer experience, Alford will return home briefly before studying abroad in the fall semester, fulfilling his study abroad requirement for the Chinese major. “I’ll basically be in China for eight months straight starting this summer,” he says. “I’ll come back for a week or two in between the two terms. The majority of the calendar year, I’ll spend in China.” Zhang says that study abroad experiences are crucial for Chinese language learners: “Chinese is a category four language for American learners, which means it takes the longest time to study. When our students take Chinese most start as true beginners. In order to reach a functioning level of language that can help their future careers, they need to experience Chinese outside the classroom, and studying abroad and learning through immersion will make a big influence.” To Blocker, who has not formally studied Chinese in the past year, “languages are like trees” growing on the brain, he says. “If you use one more than the other, its roots will grow at the other's expense. My ‘English tree’ has gotten kind of big over the past year, and I'm hoping to prune it back, so to speak.”Zhang says that the CLS scholarship is a great opportunity for students in offsetting the financial cost of study abroad learning, and that students interested in the scholarship for Chinese, Arabic or Korean should start considering it early in their college career. “Students need to think ahead and build themselves into strong candidates," she says. "This is a big opportunity and also a big achievement.”For more information on the Critical Language Scholarship, visit www.clscholarship.org/.by Sarah Madden, Wofford Class of 2017