May 14, 2008 — Elizabeth Wesner was fascinated with the Chinese language, and recognized the growing need for Chinese teachers. But when she applied to U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, seeking to become certified to teach Chinese, she had no idea how the school's graduate admissions committee would react, as the language was not even an option on their application.
"I wasn't even sure I would hear back from them," Wesner said. "When I printed out the application and it said to write what language I wanted to be certified in, I drew my own little blank and put 'Chinese.'"
While the school had programs for teachers of French, Spanish and Latin, and would consider special applications to become a German instructor, the Curry School had never certified someone to teach Chinese. According to Ruth Ferree, a Curry school assistant professor who would become Wesner's adviser, the main factor that had inhibited the development of a Chinese program was the lack of opportunities for the education students to do student teaching in the subject.
"When she came to me and said she wanted to be a Chinese teacher, I had to lay out the realities that this would all be a pilot thing because it's not a program we have in place," Ferree said. "Also, because there is nowhere local for her to student-teach, she would have to go away. And she was just hardheaded and determined enough to say, 'Fine.'"
Wesner began studying Chinese after transferring to U.Va. from James Madison University in 2004. Her interest in the language and culture stems partially from her own intellectual curiosity and also because her mother is Indonesian with Chinese heritage and she wanted to learn something about her roots. She also knew it would be a challenging language. Once she started, she said it "felt right."
Wesner has also studied German and Russian and said her interest in languages comes from her passion for communicating with others. During her third year, she decided that teaching would be the best use of her language skills.
"I applied [to the Curry School] with the specific goal of getting licensure in Chinese," Wesner said. "I thought there was a growing need for it. I knew more people were going to need to speak Chinese and I thought I could help with that."
Because only one local school offers Chinese, Wesner, a Charlottesville native, had to complete her student teaching in Fairfax County. She spent last semester teaching four classes at George C. Marshall High School and living with a family in Northern Virginia.
After graduating in May, Wesner will travel to Shenzhen, China to teach English while working on her Chinese and experiencing the culture. When she returns, she hopes to get a job at the State Department teaching Chinese to diplomats.
Ferree praised Wesner's commitment and added that because of her example, the Curry School hopes to add a program in Chinese education in the near future.
"This was her driving passion and she was willing to do whatever it took to meet this goal," Ferree said. "She has done beautifully."