The Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS Center) held its first national gala on Sept 24 in Washington to honor the achievements of 10 individuals from Confucius Institute (CI) communities across America.
The Confucius Institute, established by the Chinese Ministry of Education in foreign countries, something similar to the UK's British Council or Germany's Goethe Institute, promotes Chinese language and cultural learning worldwide.
"Never have I found myself surrounded by people who I couldn't verbally understand, but wholeheartedly felt a connection towards," said honoree David Cole, a senior at the University of Kentucky, who was sent by the university's Confucius Institute to three Chinese cities as part of a study program.
Jonathan Marek, a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, who has studied Chinese since third grade, said that "living in China--eating the foods, walking the streets, watching the shows, and seeing the people--gave me a new perspective on learning the language".
Marek spent a month in Hangzhou, the host city for the recent G20 Summit, through a program hosted by the Confucius Institute in Chicago and Wanxiang America, the U.S. subsidiary of a leading Chinese auto-parts maker.
"Cultural understanding is key for a successful partnership," said keynote speaker C.D. Mote, president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. When Mote was the president of University of Maryland at College Park, he spearheaded the CI initiative with the Chinese Ministry of Education and helped to establish the first Confucius Institute at the university in 2004.
Mote stressed that achieving sustainability of the CI program requires support and effective communication among the Confucius Institute headquarters in China, Confucius Institute in each university, and the greater community around that institute.
"We need to learn how to work better together, and the Confucius Institute community is where it starts," said Morgan Jones, chief operating officer of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, a non-profit organization first established by the U.S. State Department to send American students to study aboard in China. Jones was a Chinese-language radio show host for three years and met his Chinese wife while living in China.
Tony Cully-Foster, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council in Washington, calls U.S.-China relations the most important in the 21st century and defines Confucius Institute as a truly global education initiative.
"Mutual respect for individual differences is at the heart of democracy and understanding," he said.
Timothy Brown, a 12-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, is the youngest among the 10 students honored. His keynote speech at the gala received a standing ovation.
Brown first became interested in Chinese culture when he began taking martial arts classes. He currently attends Chinese classes offered by the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, where he also actively participates in extracurricular activities such as language competitions, kung fu, and Chinese music (he sings in Chinese).
"We're very thankful for the Confucius Institute. As one of the most spoken languages in the world, Chinese is important, and with globalization, there's a reason why we should prepare those responsible for the next generation," said one of Brown's family members, who occupied almost one table.
Although Brown has not settled with what he wants to do with his ability in Chinese language and culture, some awardees already made up their minds, including Jenifer Guevara from Texas Southern University.
"I want to teach kids Chinese," said Guevara. She noticed there are Chinese immersion programs being established in elementary schools around Houston and wants to be part of the first group of instructors.
"When you see the power of learning Chinese language and culture and the rich world that opened up for these young people, you know the education is truly the magic that can change one's life," said Gao Qing, the executive director of CIU.S., who calls the gala award the People-to-People Exchange Award.
The other six awardees are Sabrina Tran from Enloe High School in North Carolina, Rachel Lietzow from the University of Kentucky, Olivia O'Dwyer from Archmere Academy in Delaware, Monica Rhodes from Texas Southern University, Deja Watkins from George Mason University, and Dennis Delehanty, the director of postal affairs at the U.S. State Department.