Fluent in Spanish, conversant in German, and having taken four years of high school French, Cerisa Obern ’13 (Madison, Wis.) arrived at Macalester already an aficionado of languages. Then she took beginning Chinese, and “I fell in love with the language,” she says. She’s been studying it ever since.
In fall 2011 her passion for Mandarin took her all the way to China—to Middlebury College’s language program at the University of Hangzhou. There she roomed with a Chinese student and studied, spoke, and wrote Chinese for hours each day. “It’s a really intense program,” she says. “The learning curve was incredible and the expectations of the Chinese teachers were very high. Pretty soon I began thinking and talking to myself in Chinese. It was then I knew I’d achieved a certain level of fluency.”
For her honors project in the language—she is double majoring in international studies—Obern is looking at the use of Weibo, a fast-growing kind of Chinese Twitter. She is focused on exploring Weibo use during the recent conflict between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Most of the protestors, she points out, were young, unemployed men. By contrast, the typical users of Weibo are wealthier and from a different socioeconomic class in China. The protestors used Chinese social media to question both the importance of these uninhabited islands and the kind of radical nationalism that lies behind the violence that played out against Japanese businesses.
Because of her double major Obern is responsible for two capstone projects along with an honors project. She completed the first capstone last spring, writing about a Chinese online author Murong Xuecun, who is critical of censorship in China. She translated a portion of his work and wrote about censorship and self-censorship in China. Next semester she will do a capstone in international studies on literature and globalization.
Obern’s strong interest in international issues led her to spend one summer interning at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis and another at the Advocates for Human Rights. For more than six months she also has been working part-time for a human rights law professor at the University of Minnesota.
Following her May graduation, Obern hopes to add still another language to her arsenal. Thanks to her mother having been born in Brazil, Obern has citizenship in that country. She’s planning to move to Brazil to learn more Portuguese. She’d also like to return to China to solidify her skills in that language.
After that, says the energetic senior, “I’ll see what path I want to take.”