Morgan Rawlings ’09 gives the gift of language

It’s hard to overstate the importance of early language education. Morgan Rawlings ’09 certainly can’t. “Speaking a second language is the first step in gaining the intercultural skills that we all need,” she said. “Intercultural competency is very important. You can be certified in it, and you can study it, but I don’t know if you can ever be fully competent. It’s a never-ending learning process. There are so many cultures out there and you have to start early.”

Rawlings started Chinese lessons as a first grader. As a high schooler, she found that she had outpaced public school language classes. Rawlings came to Peddie in pursuit of a Chinese program that would challenge her. Now, she works for American Councils for International Education, a non-profit organization that implements the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI-Y), a program of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. NSLI-Y is a program that provides merit-based scholarships for teenagers to learn less commonly taught languages and send them overseas for immersive language experiences.

One could almost draw a straight line between Rawlings’ Peddie experience to her future with the NSLI-Y program. When Rawlings came to Peddie, she found an Asian Studies program that pushed her to hone her language learning ability, and an inspiring teacher in Yuan Gao. Gao saw Rawlings’ passion for Chinese language and culture and encouraged her to seek out immersive opportunities, like hosting visiting students from EFZ Shanghai in her dorm room and going abroad for a summer with Peddie's SYA: School Year Abroad program. Her summer abroad in Beijing led to a lasting relationship with both the country and her host family. “Now that I’m working in International Education,” Rawlings said, “I realize how rare it is to have a host family stay in contact with the student for this long. It’s been 10 years, and I still talk to them.”

Morgan with her host family

Upon graduation, Gao brought her on as an assistant for his summer work at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, where students pledge to speak their focus language – and only their focus language – for the duration of camp. Acting as a translator between students who had pledged to speak only Chinese for the summer and staff members who spoke only English, Rawlings had her first brush with the complex work of translation.

College brought Rawlings even more opportunities. While at Indiana University, working on a major in East Asian Languages and Cultures with a concentration in Chinese, she learned of their National Language Flagship program, which allowed her to study abroad with the Princeton in Beijing program and at Nanjing University. While in China, she got a job with a marketing firm, developing ad campaigns for English and Chinese markets. “Somewhere, there’s an Audi ad with my voice over it,” she joked.

Rawlings continued her marketing career after school, but found herself seeking opportunities to use Chinese in her everyday life. Remembering her experience at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, she discovered the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, where she pursued a dual Masters’ in International Education Management and Public Administration. As a summer job, she worked as a resident director for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, where she continues to work to this day.

NSLI-Y provides enormous educational opportunities for students who otherwise might not be able to afford an education in uncommon languages, or the opportunity to study abroad. The program provides over 660 scholarships, sending students abroad each summer with the goal of raising a generation of American students with advanced language skills, capable of engaging with speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish and equipped with the intercultural competency that Rawlings pursues. For the group of 18 to 20 students who go to China with her each summer, Rawlings acts as their support system. She’s responsible for their safety in a foreign country and as an encouraging presence for these students who are taking the same big leap she took as a student at Peddie. “Their language gains are so huge in the small amount of time,” she said. “It’s fun to give them hints and pointers from my own experience and see them navigating the new culture at the same time.”

“I think Peddie’s doing a lot just by having an international student community,” she reflected. “I still remember the International Food Fair at Peddie. It’s always helpful to have international students promoting their culture and to have American students interacting with their peers’ cultures and promoting that curiosity to learn about the other cultures, whether it be through language or through food or anything. It’s just about getting that first spark of curiosity to get the ball rolling.”