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NMSU's Confucius Institute helps high school student shine in competition

At just 15 years of age, Ruben Mena successfully went head-to-head against older high school students in a prestigious Chinese-language competition thanks to his confidence in his abilities and New Mexico State University's Confucius Institute.

Portrait photo of Ruben Mena.
Ruben Mena, a student at the Arrowhead Park Early College High School, was able to compete in the Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition in Los Angeles thanks to support from NMSU's Confucius Institute. Mena took second place in the competition and will be traveling to Beijing this fall for the international tournament. (photo by Darren Phillips)

Earlier this month, Ruben placed second in the Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition held at the University of California, Los Angeles. His reward for finishing in the top two of the regional competition at UCLA is an invitation to attend the international tournament in Beijing in October. The Confucius Institute at NMSU will be paying for Ruben's trip.

"We couldn't be more thrilled by Ruben's performance at the UCLA competition," said Elvira Hammond, co-director of the Confucius Institute at NMSU. "Ruben came to us with a solid foundation in Chinese, but we were able to take him to that next level by preparing him for the Chinese Bridge competition."

The Confucius Institute was established at NMSU in 2007 as a cooperative agreement between the university and the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. The goal of the institute is to increase awareness and understanding of Chinese language and culture in the community through education, performances, seminars and outreach. In addition, the institute conducts language and culture programs for schools and community groups from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, as well as Vado and El Paso.

Ruben, a ninth-grader at the Arrowhead Park Early College High School, is a recent transplant to Las Cruces. He first began learning Chinese while attending Alicia R. Chacon Middle School in El Paso.

"Pretty much, I got an introduction to Chinese there and I really liked the language," said Ruben, who was the only student from Las Cruces to take part in the Chinese Bridge competition. "But then my parents decided to move to Las Cruces, so I told them we had to find a Chinese program and we ended up finding the Confucius Institute at NMSU."

Through the university's Confucius Institute, Ruben was provided with a private Chinese-language tutor, NMSU visiting scholar Wei Zhang, who continued his lessons and helped him register for the Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition. The institute also paid for Ruben's trip to Los Angeles.

The Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Competition is a large international contest sponsored by Hanban, China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language in Beijing. It consists of events for college and high school students from around the world, as well as foreign students in China. The competitions are broadcast on Chinese television.

In just under four years, Ruben has learned to read, write and speak Chinese.

"I told my first teacher that I really liked Chinese, so I would study more than I was supposed to," he said. "I picked it up really fast. Chinese is really not that hard. It does take a little time to start learning sentences and phrases."

Facing older students from high schools across the West and Southwest, Ruben admits he was intimidated during the UCLA regional competition ? but not much.

"I was a little bit overwhelmed because I was the youngest one there," he said. "Usually in the high school round there are people who are 18 or 17 years old. The competition was divided into two parts. There was the high school round, which I was in, and there was the college round. The high school round went first. I calmed down because the theater wasn't that big; it was quite small."

Ruben was asked two questions regarding Chinese culture and history, which he had to answer in Chinese. After that, he had to present a five-minute monologue on China, again in Chinese. Finally, he had to demonstrate a talent related to Chinese culture.

"Ruben and his Chinese teacher from the Confucius Institute put in many, many hours of preparation for the contest ? memorizing texts and monologues, and practicing various skills, including Chinese calligraphy," Hammond said.

Despite feeling confident in his abilities, Ruben said he still was very surprised to have won second-place ? as was his mother.

"I was shocked," said Isabela Mena, a bilingual education teacher at Tombaugh Elementary School. "I'm very happy because I saw how many hours Ruben spent studying. He studies two to three hours every day. I didn't want him to be disappointed after all those hours."

She credits Ruben's success not only to the teen's innate talent for languages, but also to the guidance and support he received from the Confucius Institute and the Arrowhead Park Early College High School.

"After we moved here from El Paso, Ruben and I were kind of sad because I thought Ruben's education was going to be diminished and he wouldn't have the materials and help he needed," Mena said. "We were so happy and so impressed with all the help from the Confucius Institute at NMSU and also from the Early College High School, because he is receiving everything he needs. Las Cruces has opened so many doors for him."

In addition, the Early College High School has provided Ruben with Rosetta Stone software that allows him to study Chinese at home.

With the competition over, Ruben will continue with his private lessons over the summer courtesy of the Confucius Institute. While he will not be competing in Beijing this fall ? only the first-place winner takes part in the competition ? Ruben will have the chance of a lifetime to see and experience the country he has been learning so much about.

"I really like China a lot, so I plan to use my skills when I go to China this October," he said. "Later on in the future I plan to be a doctor. But besides studying Western medicine I would like to study traditional Chinese medicine, too."