Qili Huang came to the United States from China as a little girl in 2001 and for the first few years was afraid to speak in public. She and her family, who moved here for better opportunities, lived in isolation because they found the English language and its culture hard to grasp, she says.
Today, the 20-year-old University of Alabama at Birmingham junior is on her way to mastering the language and has added Spanish to her linguistic coffer. Huang has been awarded a prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and plans to study Spanish in Argentina this fall.
“I am so excited,” says the Florence, Ala., resident who is double majoring in international studies and Spanish.
The Gilman Scholarship Program offers awards for undergraduates to study abroad and was established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000. While in Argentina, Huang plans to study the culture, sharpen her Spanish-speaking skills and do some volunteer work.
“I believe that knowing another language opens doors for opportunity and establishes relationships across cultures,” she says.
It was her journey of learning English that awakened her desire to study another language, she says.
“The one thing that I remember most is the years where my siblings and my mother spent inside our apartment all day long because we were not accustomed to our new life,” she says.
“Knowing different languages will allow me to help families, just like my own, to adjust to their surroundings and possibly help them learn English."
School was initially a challenge. Huang was afraid of being made fun of because she couldn’t understand what her peers were saying, she says.
“This silence of not openly speaking to anyone lasted for four to five years,” she says, “until I finally got the courage to speak for myself and let my own voice be heard.”
Kid TV shows like “Arthur,” “Barney,” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” became her English teacher, she says.
Once she began to grasp the language, she took on the mantra: “work hard, study hard and think hard.” For her, education would be the key to making a better life for her and her family, she says.
She enrolled at UAB as part of the University Honors Program and credits it with helping her thrive.
“They have supported me through scholarship and motivation,” she says. The Honors Program and UAB’s diverse campus have helped her blossom and created a breeding ground for her success, she says.
While here, she has received several academic scholarships and serves as a tireless volunteer, recruiter and campus leader. She does this, all while working part-time.
Huang, who speaks Fuzhou dialect, Mandarin, Spanish and English, has a dream to one day help other foreign-born citizens adapt to life in this country.
“Knowing different languages will allow me to help families, just like my own, to adjust to their surroundings and possibly help them learn English,” she says.
Her parents are Michael Huang and Mei Chen of Florence.