Recent Transylvania graduate Sonni Wilson ’23 has been named as a finalist for the 2023 Critical Language Scholarship. She will travel to New Taipei, Taiwan, this summer to spend 10 weeks immersed in Chinese culture and language study.
Wilson competed against more than 5,000 applicants to win this prestigious and highly competitive scholarship, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State. The all-expenses-paid scholarship includes international airfare, room and board, classes and field trips, as well as providing a stipend for recipients.
Wilson is also the university’s first Chinese studies major, a field she selected after a Transy CAPE staff member recommended she choose a major not with the intention of getting a specific job, but instead by pursuing something that she enjoyed and wanted to keep studying. After a few semesters of exploratory classes, Wilson was ready to commit.
“Everything about learning Chinese — the language, the culture, the history — was not just interesting but also somewhat easy for me to keep my attention on,” she said. “Once I realized that, I knew I wanted to make my self-designed major.”
Wilson credits the support of faculty and friends for her success in pursuing such a challenging language. Professors Qian Gao and Wei Lin, along with friend and fellow alumna Hayle Hall ’21, served as her support system and cheered her on when her studies became difficult.
“Not only did these three push me to do my best in Chinese, but they also encouraged me when I was struggling with Chinese, whether I told them about it or not,” she said. “I really don’t think I would have this degree without any of them.”
In fact, Hall was the first person to tell Wilson about CLS. A previous CLS recipient and Wilson’s Chinese tutor, Hall encouraged Wilson to think about applying for the program.
Wilson received the news that she had been accepted this spring, describing her reaction as “overjoyed.”
“The first thing I did was call my mom and my brother to tell them, and then I jumped back into my car and drove to school so that I could catch Dr. Gao before she left for the day,” she remembered, noting that she ran all the way to the third floor of Carpenter to share her good news with her equally excited professor. “Dr. Gao told me that she knew I was ready for this and that I deserved to get this, and it made me feel really happy and validated.”
Wilson is looking forward to her time in New Taipei, one of the newest CLS sites, where she will be taking an intensive language course to improve her fluency at Tamkang University with her fellow scholarship recipients. She will also receive individualized language instruction, stay with a host family for a few weeks, and take field trips around Taiwan to learn more about the country’s culture and history — she particularly looks forward to touring local temples.
She’s also planning additional weekend travel to make the most of her time abroad. “I have already met some of the other people in the program, and we’ve already talked about taking some day trips to travel around,” she said, adding that other Transy students will also be in Taiwan during her stay and she plans to meet up with them as well.
Wilson — who hopes to continue her study of Chinese language and culture in graduate school after taking a gap year — believes that her undergraduate classes and professors prepared her well for the adventure she’s about to experience, noting that along with professors Gao and Lin, professor Steve Hess also gave her historical context that will help her get the most from her stay.
“I feel like, because of them, I’m ready to go to Taiwan and experience as much as I can,” she said. “They have also given me a lot of tips for going to Taiwan and having fun and just making it feel like home.”
She also credits professors Avery Tompkins and Hande Ozkan for encouraging flexible and critical thinking, as well as Erin Hannon and Angela Eaton for teaching her to believe in herself and for always offering their support as Wilson worked to create new opportunities.
As a student who chose to create her own major, Wilson acknowledged that there’s a certain level of uncertainty inherent in blazing your own path. “It’s a little scary because we’re doing something that no one has really done before,” she reflected. “Getting the news that I got [the scholarship] just validated the feeling that I can do the things that I want and that it is possible to get opportunities, even when you don’t go the same route as everyone else.”
Wilson highly recommends the CLS program, noting that students can apply to study a plethora of languages. “It’s okay to doubt yourself about getting in, but don’t let that stop you from trying,” she advised. She also suggests that students who are interested in applying seek assistance with their application from Transy’s Office of Global and Cultural Engagement.
“I know it seems intimidating, especially when you hear the odds of getting chosen, but what’s important is to try,” she said. “Life might surprise you, as it did with me. I really feel like now, my possibilities are endless.”