Scholarship Sends Student to South Korea

Nina Perkins won’t be spending her upcoming birthday with family and friends. Instead, she’ll be halfway around the world, starting an eight-week Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in South Korea. She leaves June 16 and is scheduled to arrive two days later and one year older.

“With the travel plans, I’m going to essentially arrive in Korea on my 20th birthday,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be tired and jetlagged, but that’s unforgettable.”

Perkins, a homeschooled student from Hampton, graduated from Virginia Peninsula Community College in May with an associate degree in liberal arts. The CSL program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and scholarship recipients are expected to continue studying their chosen language or enter a career field where that language is used.

Sandra Calderon-Doherty, a VPCC assistant professor, had Perkins in her Acting I class in fall 2023 and told her about the scholarship. Perkins has always wanted to study Korean, so she applied.

“I guess I wrote some good essays,” Perkins said.

Her interest in South Korea began when a childhood friend moved there with her military family several years ago. Her friend would send postcards, which is how Perkins started learning about the country.

“I have been wanting to learn Korean for maybe five, six years,” she said, adding she has been studying the language on her own because the only other option she found was taking classes at another college, which she didn’t want to do.

However, it isn’t the only foreign language she is studying. She’s half-Hispanic but wasn’t raised bilingual. She started learning Spanish through her mother in high school.

“I love learning Spanish. I love learning languages in general,” she said. “A big goal of mine is to be trilingual by 25, hopefully.”

She discovered there’s a substantial Korean population in Newport News, so she would visit those areas, especially the restaurants. When she was in middle school and high school, she was into Korean pop culture.

“That really helped me get more of a grasp on Korea,” she said. “But as I kind of came out of that K-pop phase, you can say, the want to learn Korean and the love of the country and the history stayed, so I wanted to pursue it through college.”

When Perkins was in high school, she was a dual enrollment student at VPCC. After graduating from high school in 2022, she enrolled full time at the College. For someone who has never been away from family for more than two or three weeks or farther away than Texas, the approaching trip can be daunting.

“When I got accepted, I was thinking you got the wrong girl. They messed up or something,” she said.

An orientation via Zoom put to rest some of those doubts.

“They were telling us, ‘Don’t let imposter syndrome get to your head. You’re supposed to be here. You want to learn,’” she said. “That kind of eased my nerves a little bit because, initially, I definitely felt like I don’t know what I’m doing; that I don’t have enough skills. But that’s the whole point.”

Calderon-Doherty said Perkins is well deserving of the scholarship.

“Nina is very open-minded. She’s creative. She thinks outside of the box. She’s a fantastic listener. I think all of those qualities contributed to her getting that scholarship,” Calderon-Doherty said. “She’s a wonderful student.”

Perkins is preparing for culture shock, but she’s also excited to be around students who share a passion and are willing to work hard.

“I think it’ll be a really great environment, and everything that the CLS program has provided us with beforehand has been very thorough, very comforting and very exciting,” she said.

As with the rest of her cohort, she will be sharing a dorm room at Chonnam National University in Gwangju with a South Korean student. She will have classes five days a week with speaking, writing and reading lessons and assignments. When the students are involved with a CLS activity, they must speak in Korean unless it’s an emergency. They will have free time on the weekends to explore the city and nearby locales.

“It’ll be a very thorough education process,” Perkins said. “This will actually be formal curriculum study in an immersive environment.”

Gwangju is known for its food, and the stipend the CLS students receive covers inexpensive meals within the city.

“I’m just going to be walking the streets finding my favorite places to eat,” she said.

She also plans to travel to as many cities as possible to take in the culture and all South Korea has to offer.

After returning, she will be transferring to George Mason University for its video game design degree. She wants to be a translator for video games and movies.

“But I may or may not change my major to the Korean language degree that they have,” she said.

Coincidentally, her brother, Tony, who earned an associate degree in computer science from VPCC last year, is at Christopher Newport University and spending three weeks in France this summer. She also has two older sisters, but neither studied abroad.

“So, this is new for our family and it's all coming at once, and they've been just really excited to see us branch out,” she said of her parents.

With Perkins never having lived in a dorm or an apartment, living on her own will be a new experience. And being homeschooled, she has spent a lot of time at home so being away for two months is a big deal.

“I will have to adjust to that kind of life at the same time. It’s the biggest thing in my life so far,” she said. “So yeah, it’s going to be a really big change.”

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