Missoula Student Wins Prestigious State Department Language Award

April 06, 2017

Ming Harris-Weidner, a junior at Missoula’s Hellgate High School, stands with the statue of Maureen and Mike Mansfield on the University of Montana campus. MISSOULA – Ming Harris-Weidner, a junior at Missoula’s Hellgate High School, recently was selected for a National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) award for intensive study of Chinese this summer.

Her application was supported by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the NSLI-Y program provides highly competitive, merit-based scholarships for high school students and recent graduates to learn less-commonly taught languages in overseas immersion programs.

One of a few students selected nationally, Harris-Weidner was funded for a six-week Chinese language and culture program in Shanghai. The award includes intensive classroom study supplemented with community service and a home stay with a Chinese family. She was one of less than 16 percent of applicants chosen to participate in NSLI-Y as she seeks to obtain fluency in Chinese in combination with the study of environmental policy.

“China and the U.S. are obviously the keys to slowing climate change,” she said. “My hope is to combine proficiency in Chinese with expertise in environmental science and policy so I can contribute to a more constructive bilateral dialogue on this vital issue.” 

Her experience builds on her participation in Mansfield Center Confucius Institute (CI) programs. The institute is the sole provider of Chinese language instruction in public schools in western Montana, working to help Montana students better compete in a global economy by developing Chinese language and culture skills. Harris-Weidner was enrolled in the institute’s Chinese classes at Hellgate High School and received an award to attend a CI language and culture program in China in 2015.

The U.S. Department of State promotes linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to enhance international dialogue and support American engagement abroad. NSLI-Y works to provide opportunities to American youth that will spark a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures.

In recent years, more than 100 Montana high school students have travelled to Asia on Mansfield Center programs funded by the U.S. Department of State and the Confucius Institute.

“Globalization of our communities is becoming an important priority,” said Deena Mansour, associate director of the Mansfield Center. “Historically, Montana youth have had relatively minimal exposure to international experiences compared with counterparts across the country. Our programs provide a rare opportunity for students who are traditionally underrepresented in international exchange. We’re thrilled that Ming was able to leverage her experience with the Mansfield Center to earn this prestigious award.”

NSLI-Y was launched in 2006 to promote critical language learning among American youth. NSLI-Y immerses participants in the cultural life of the host country, giving them formal and informal language practice. The program develops a cadre of Americans with advanced linguistic skills and related cultural understanding who are able to use their linguistic and cultural skills to advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy. 

The Mansfield Center promotes better understanding of Asia, U.S. relations with Asia, and ethics and public affairs in the spirit of longtime U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, and his wife, Maureen. In addition to serving the UM community, the center offers a range of programs for K-12 students and professionals.

Mansour said programs such as NSLI-Y are currently slated for elimination in the FY2018 foreign affairs budget.

“While foreign assistance is less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, the U.S. Department of State may take among the hardest hits,” she said. “The proposed budget eliminates all cultural and educational exchanges other than some Fulbright awards. Such funding has allowed us to support Ming and thousands of additional Montanans to better engage in global commerce and education opportunities.”  

Contact: Deena Mansour, UM Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center associate director, 406-243-22713, deena.mansour@umontana.edu.