Mandarin Immersion Senior Profile: Natalie La

The Capistrano Valley Class of 2024 will include the first ever graduates of the Mandarin Immersion Program. CUSD Insider asked the seniors to reflect on their time with the program and share what they have planned for after graduation.

Natalie La

Natalie La of the Mandarin Immersion Program at Capistrano Valley High.
Photo by Steven Georges/CUSD Insider


When did you start in the Mandarin Immersion Program?

4th grade- 2015

Why did you join the Mandarin Immersion Program?

Mandarin has always been a part of my life. My parents pushed for Mandarin education when we moved to Singapore, believing it would provide good opportunities in the future as well as further connect me to my heritage. As a result, I grew up learning Mandarin in school, so naturally it became an invaluable part of my life. When we later moved to the United States, I wanted to continue learning Mandarin to preserve that connection to my culture despite being in a new country. My grandmother is the only person in my family who speaks Mandarin and I want to be able to converse with her. The Mandarin Immersion Program provided the opportunity for me to continue learning Mandarin in school while making Chinese culture a key part of the curriculum.

What are your plans after you graduate from CUSD?

After graduating from CUSD, I plan to pursue my bachelor’s degree in statistics at a four-year college. I don’t quite know where the future will take me, but I may also further my education by pursuing a Master’s. In my work life, I want to work in humanities research relating to the sociocultural aspect of psychology, learning more each day on what it means to be human and how different groups have defined that. In my personal life, I’d like to expand my worldview and travel around the globe, experiencing these cultures that I research about in person. Throughout it all, I don’t doubt that Mandarin will still play an integral part of my life. Bilingualism has only been a small step into learning about different cultures, but I intend to take it further in the future.

What other activities were you involved with in high school?

In high school I was on the tennis team for three years, National Honors Society for two years, National Chinese Honors Society for two years, Chinese Culture Club for three years, and California Scholarship Federation for four years. I was the President of Chinese Culture Club, Secretary of National Chinese Honors Society, Historian of National Honors Society and Captain of the tennis team for two years. I also worked as a tutor within the school and as a math instructor for a part-time job. Throughout high school I ran my own social media for my artwork and made a small business out of it, though it’s gone now as I shut it down recently.

What was your favorite part of the Mandarin Immersion Program experience?

My favorite part of the Mandarin Immersion Program experience was learning about and celebrating Chinese culture. Of all the aspects of Mandarin, the connection to the culture resonated the most with me. My family has Chinese ancestors, but we’ve been displaced so many times that I wouldn’t feel much of a connection to the culture if I didn’t learn Mandarin. Celebrating Lunar New Year every year makes me feel proud of my heritage, and lucky that I have a culture to explore and celebrate. The festivities for Lunar New Year in the Mandarin Immersion Program are adequately large, for how important the holiday is in China, and I’m glad that such an important holiday still has loud and extravagant celebrations in America.

What aspect of the Mandarin Immersion Program surprised you the most?

I was surprised how much they emphasized learning Chinese culture along with the language. In Singapore, Mandarin education had more academic emphasis, likely due to the fact that many families in Singapore already celebrated Chinese culture. However, in the United States, where members of the Mandarin Immersion Program may not celebrate Chinese culture, education on said matter was equally prioritized to the language. It was a change, but I liked participating in activities that explored both Chinese culture and American culture.

How has the Mandarin Immersion Program prepared you for life after graduation?

Since I expect to work with a lot of different cultures, being bilingual in Mandarin will help me get a lot of insight and nuance that I wouldn’t pick up through translation. Though knowing English is useful, language often has nuances that can’t be expressed in terms other than the mother language. Being fluent in Mandarin will allow me to communicate better with those I work with, and also offer a familiar language so that they feel more comfortable within a research environment. Life after graduation is still unknown, but I know my parents won’t be around forever to tell me more about Chinese culture. Using what I’ve learned from the Mandarin Immersion Program, I can keep Chinese culture alive within myself and whatever family I surround myself with in the future. Lastly, the Mandarin Immersion Program has given me a community of people that I’ve grown up with for the past eight years. I hope to take these friendships with me into my adult life past graduation. These relationships are some that I wouldn’t give up for the world and I’m both endlessly happy and lucky to have them in my life.

How will you use your Mandarin knowledge in your daily life?

My current primary use of Mandarin at home is to speak with my grandmother. My grandmother is the key to my family’s past and there’s so much I don’t know about her and her life. I’d like to deepen my connection to my grandma and learn all that makes her who she is before she leaves me. Not only that, but some restaurants only speak Mandarin. The most authentic Chinese food you could find in America likely only speaks Mandarin. Being bilingual enables me to order at these restaurants and preserve my connection to Mandarin cuisine. I think that being able to speak with others within a country where Chinese people are the minority creates a better sense of community and solidarity.

What advice would you give other students considering joining the Mandarin Immersion Program?

I would say it’s a fantastic opportunity to enroll them in Mandarin education from a young age. Mandarin is a language where it’s not easy to pick up once you’re older, but when cultivated from a young age, you can create a strong foundation to carry into the future. There’s a great community surrounding the program and I’d recommend it for anyone interested in getting a deeper experience and education of Chinese culture. The root of any culture is the language, after all. I had a fulfilling time during the program and I hope that anyone who joins doesn’t regret their decision. Advice-wise, I’d say to keep up with Mandarin Immersion even at home, as I think submerging yourself in the culture outside of school will make for a more robust knowledge of Mandarin. I don’t regret the time I’ve dedicated to the program and I’m grateful for the memories and experiences I can take with me into my adult life.

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