Aparna Bhooshanan is an alumnus of the 2019 NSLI-Y Summer Chinese program in Xi’an, China. Aparna is studying Chinese and Computer Science at the University of Alabama.

Aparna was inspired to participate in NSLI-Y by her older sister Meenu, and acknowledges that she owes a lot of her experiences and success to her family. When her sister returned from a Summer NSLI-Y program in Jordan, she would speak to her family in Arabic, even sometimes teasing Aparna in Arabic! Witnessing the impact the experience had on her sister, Aparna was inspired to find a language she could love just as much as Meenu loved Arabic. Completely by chance, Aparna found her passion for Chinese. She fell in love with how the language sounded and decided to pursue it.

Aparna appreciates the life-changing impact that studying abroad had on her identity, so much so that she categorizes her life into pre- and post-NSLI-Y periods. Learning Chinese in an immersive setting and her experiences in Xi’an have changed her perspective on her own heritage and culture. Growing up, Aparna learned about the stereotyped division between South Asian and East Asian people. She often was confronted by the assumption that Indians were not Asian and, as a result, Aparna struggled with defending her Asian identity. After completing NSLI-Y, she realized how similar South Asian and East Asian cultures are, making her confident to proudly claim ‘Asian’ as part of her identity.

Reflecting on her experience in Xi’an, Aparna treasures the time she spent with her 10-year-old host sister. Aparna felt like the big sister to the brightest and sweetest girl. Besides the memories with her host family, one of her favorite stories is when she visited the Huimin Jie market in the city. Aparna recounts how walking through it felt like a fairy tale. As she was wandering around the different shops, she noticed a Greek couple trying to purchase a necklace from a vendor who only understood Chinese. Aparna approached the couple and was able to barter with the vendor. Afterward, the couple was very thankful for her help. They asked if she was from India, to which Aparna said she was American. The couple smiled and replied, “Well, now you are from Greece.”

Returning from study abroad, Aparna felt motivated to continue Chinese. However, her high school did not offer Chinese class. Refusing to give up, Aparna began volunteering with ESL and improved her communication skills by speaking with Chinese immigrants in her town. Professionally, she wanted to make sure that her future career would be a combination of language and computer science passions. This exploration led her to learn about natural language processing, which incorporates both language learning and computer science. Currently, Aparna is leading a research project with two professors at the University of Alabama to understand how AI can be leveraged to support the language acquisition of Chinese heritage speakers. Once this project has concluded, she hopes to publish her research. Aparna has also recently received the Critical Language Scholarship for intensive Chinese study in Taiwan this summer and has received the Boren Scholarship for an academic year of Chinese study in Taiwan. Aparna is excited to learn more about perspectives in Taiwan and different language variants. She hopes that she’ll be able to use the perspectives she gains to “be able to create software in multicultural contexts that is sensitive to the areas that it will be used in.”

Overall, Aparna is grateful for her study abroad experience since it has impacted the choices she has made today. Aparna encourages everyone to apply for study abroad opportunities because of how life-changing they can be. Pre-NSLI-Y, as Aparna would categorize it, she felt very introverted and had to build confidence to begin coming out of her shell. While on-program, NSLI-Y made her feel comfortable being the person to break the ice first and form new connections easily with others. She views NSLI-Y as the first step she needed to take to become a more complete and purposeful version of herself. To any students whose parents feel hesitant about their children studying abroad, Aparna empathizes that hesitance is normal. She explains that NSLI-Y provides a strong foundation for students to pursue critical languages in an immersive environment that significantly boosts their proficiency.