At the start of Jay Todd Richey’s freshman year at Western Kentucky University, he received a letter in the mail about the Chinese Flagship Program.
He had no clue what it was, but since he had always been interested in learning a foreign language that would be useful regardless of his field of study, he decided to check it out.
He called Melinda Edgerton, interim assistant director of the program, to gain information.
“I expressed my interest and told her I would be a dedicated student,” he said.
Edgerton interviewed Richey over the phone and soon he was enrolled in the program.
Edgerton described Richey as an excellent student.
“He had never spoken Chinese until he started the program,” she said.
The Chinese Flagship Program is an initiative of the National Security Education Program within the Defense Language and National Security Education Office.
“(It) is focused on getting U.S. students to the critical level of foreign languages, such as Chinese,” Edgerton said. “We’re one of 11 Chinese Flagship Programs in the country. Students in the program are taking intensive Chinese classes alongside their academic major. The goal with the flagship program is for students to be professionally proficient.”
Richey spent eight weeks of his freshman year studying Chinese at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
“It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It was brutal but rewarding.”
Students in the program study Chinese every day – more often than those who are majoring in Chinese, Richey said.
In the Chinese Flagship Program, the students speak only Chinese in class.
“We have homework every night and homework on the weekends, but every second is worth it,” Richey said.
Not only is Richey learning a new language, he is also learning a new alphabet composed of characters rather than letters.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was one of the most challenging things I ever got myself into.”
Professors in the Chinese Flagship Program encourage students to do summer programs. So, he spent the summer after his freshman year in China.
According to Edgerton, internship and study abroad opportunities in China allow students to learn Chinese while staying connected with their fields of study.
“Theoretically, they could do their job in the U.S. or in China in the future,” she said.
Richey, who is majoring in political science, economics and Asian religions and cultures, is now in his second semester at WKU and is preparing for another trip to China where he will be doing a grant-funded internship with the U.S. Department of Defense, working at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for 10 weeks in public affairs.
“I will be working with social media,” he said. “I will be expected to translate Chinese into English.”
He will also be translating “very high relations” into a form that anyone can read or understand, he said.
Studying Chinese is just one thing Richey is doing in college. He is also involved in student government and is a WKU Spirit Master, as well as a member of a fraternity.
The fact that he is so active initially concerned his father, Jeff Richey, principal at Hiseville Elementary School.
“I was extremely worried, but the thing about Jay Todd is he is a no-nonsense type of kid. He knows what he wants to do and he sets his priorities,” Jeff Richey said.
Jeff Richey wishes his son would devote more of his time to being a kid, but says Jay Todd Richey has a desire to stay active.
“He doesn’t leave any rock unturned. I’m very proud of him,” Jeff Richey said.
WKU launched its Chinese Flagship Program in 2009. There are currently 60 students involved in the program.