Rishabh Balachandran ʼ23, who started learning Mandarin Chinese as a Blake sixth grader, knows immersion is key to language mastery. As a tenth grader, Balachandran wanted to become more comfortable speaking Mandarin outside of the classroom, so he set his sights on a study abroad opportunity in China or Taiwan. 

Upper School Chinese teacher Lina Jin encouraged Balachandran to apply for a program through the U.S. State Department, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), which promotes the study of Mandarin and several other languages by granting scholarships for summer and academic-year programs.

Balachandran competed with thousands of applicants from high schools across the United States and was one of about 400 students to win a NSLI-Y scholarship. This summer, he spent two months in Taiwan, immersing himself in the country’s language and culture. 

He talks about his experience abroad and shares advice for those interested in applying for an NSLI-Y scholarship. 

Q: Where and with whom did you live during your time in Taiwan? 
A: Taiwan was still very strict with COVID regulations when I traveled there in June 2022. During the first week, I was isolated in a quarantine hotel. After that, I spent the weekdays in a dorm at Tamkang University. My dorm room included three other boys—a senior from California, a junior from Pennsylvania and another senior from New York.

I was assigned a wonderful host family, and I spent my weekends with them. My host dad is
retired, and my host mom runs a merchandising store. My host sisters are 21 and 16. My host family was amazing. They live in a high rise, and my host sister was kind enough to give her
bedroom to me when I stayed with them. They took me to many of their favorite restaurants and every weekend we would travel to a lot of different places. They would also sometimes stop by during the week and take me to dinner. My older host sister also introduced me to some of her friends, and I became really close with some of them. I stay connected with them through texting and calling.

Q: Can you tell us about an activity, class or experience that was particularly meaningful to you?
A: Some of my most memorable experiences were either hanging out with the other students and counselors (we had two “counselors” who were students at the college, but they were only about a year older than us) or spending time with my host family. To come up with one single experience is hard, but spending the day hanging out with my host sisters and their friends I really got to know Taiwanese people my age, and it helped me realize that we all have a lot in common, like playing video games and watching TV shows.

Q: You’re a senior this year, has participating in NSLI-Y made you think differently about
opportunities you might pursue next year and beyond? 

A: My summer experience makes me want to spend more time in Taiwan and abroad. I am still very focused on applying to mechanical engineering programs, but I am also looking for an
opportunity to spend more time traveling. It is possible that I might take a gap year, if the college that I choose allows it. If that doesn’t happen, I will still choose to spend at least a part of my college outside of the U.S., whether it be Taiwan, Japan or somewhere else.

Q: What would you tell other students who might be considering applying for the program?
A: I talk a lot about how fun the program is, but it’s also a lot of hard work, so make sure you are committed to doing it. You will have to attend class almost every weekday for four to six hours a day, and you will have some homework. NSLI-Y is a language program that offers Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish. There is no prior language requirement, so you can apply even if you do not know any of the language (although I would recommend studying a decent amount beforehand if you are a beginner, as you will be able to make more out of the program). They will place you with a host family according to your language level, so you don’t have to worry a lot about that. The application process is quite rigorous, so if you want to apply, you will have to get a recommendation from a teacher, write multiple essays and do an interview. (Prepare for interviews! I spent a lot of time working with my mom on interviews.) The deadline for essays and recommendations is Nov. 3.