From the time that Palmyra-Macedon teacher Greg Russell sparked Jason Oaks’ interest about East Asia in the district’s International Baccalaureate program, he’s been hooked.
This week Oaks, now 24 and a PhD candidate in International Relations at Cornell University, embarked on his fifth trip to China. He was one of 575 graduate and undergraduate students awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. Oaks, a 2005 Pal-Mac graduate, will study Mandarin Chinese for eight weeks in Shanghai this summer.
“It’s snowballed,” Oaks said about his fascination with the Orient. He first learned to speak Chinese as a freshman at Haverford College, where he majored in East Asian Studies. He graduated from there in 2009.
The language, the history and the economics of China has continued to fascinate Oaks. While still a student at Haverford, he returned to Wayne County to attend a business luncheon with his father, Assemblyman Bob Oaks, because the Chinese representative of a local company would be there. Jason Oaks easily conversed with him in Mandarin.
Or at least it sounded that way to anyone listening.
“That was early on,” Oaks recalled. “I felt a little off my game. It’s a never-ending battle to do well.”
The Critical Language scholarship program provides group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences. Participants are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship and apply their critical language skills in their future professional careers. CLS used a merit-based selection process and made their selections from more than 5,200 applicants from across the country. Other scholarship winners will be learning Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Hindi, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish and Urdu languages in countries where these languages are spoken.
The State Department launched the Critical language Scholarships for Intensive Summer Institutes in 2006 to increase opportunities for American students to study critical-need languages overseas. The program is part of a wider U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical languages.
Oaks made several previous trips to China. He focused on Chinese language, culture, history and government studies through summer programs in Beijing and Huangshi, as well as another State Department-sponsored program in Suhzou. Jason also studied in Harbin for a semester in his junior year of college. He was also the recipient of a Beinecke Scholarship while at Haverford. The scholarship is awarded to support the graduate education of exceptional students in the arts, humanities or social sciences.
“The Critical Languages Program is an important resource for building the United State’s capacity of fluency in languages vital to our national security in the 21st century,” said Oaks. “I have been fortunate to receive funding for this summer and I look forward to continue building on my Chinese language skills. It will only strengthen my base as I return to Cornell in the fall to continue my research and teaching about this important part of the world.”
He is not sure what his career path will be once he completes his PhD. He said he may become a professor – he’s thoroughly enjoyed his experiences teaching.
“I loved that,” he said. “But I’m also interested in having more of an immediate impact, possibly through policy work in Washington, D.C. or other places. I might test those waters.”
Jason Oaks is the youngest son of Bob and Judy Oaks of Macedon. Their other son, Christopher, is a teacher at Pal-Mac.