Senior Profile/Chinese, Russian Languages Allow Andrea Richards to Get to the Heart of People and Their Cultures

Issue Date: 
April 4, 2012
Andrea RichardsAndrea Richards

Speaking Mandarin and haggling with vendors in the huge outdoor markets of steamy Shanghai, Andrea Richards was literally a world away from her small hometown of Bucyrus, Ohio, population, 13,000. It was the summer of 2010, and Richards was relishing her ability to use a foreign language to communicate with people.

The recipient of a 2010 Foreign Languages and Area Studies (FLAS) Scholarship at Pitt, Richards had realized her love for foreign language a few years earlier while still a student at Wynford High School in Bucyrus. She had become so proficient in French after five years of classes that she was occasionally asked to be a substitute teacher for lower-level French classes.

Today, the friendly, athletic 22-year-old is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese and Russian from Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. She aspires to live abroad and teach English as a second language to Chinese and Russian students in their native tongues while living in their native lands. She is one of only a handful of students graduating from Pitt today who majored in Chinese.

“The fun thing about languages is that you learn so much more about the people,” said Richards, adding that it’s impossible to learn a language without absorbing the nation’s culture, whether it’s chatting with merchants at Shanghai markets or discussing Buddhist traditions at a temple in nearby Hangzhou.

Richards received Pitt’s prestigious Chancellor’s Scholarship in 2008; she has consistently made the Dean’s Honors List and received the Dean’s Star Award. She served as a University Honors College (UHC) ambassador and a member of UHC’s student advisory board, regularly discussing UHC developments and programs with its dean.

The summer after her memorable semester in China, Richards received the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and used it to study Russian at Moscow State University through Pitt’s Summer Language Institute. Again, she found herself immersed in the local culture as she navigated the Moscow subway, sampled borscht at the university’s student café, and laughed with a Muscovite who was surprised to learn New York was both a state and a city.

In both countries, Richards said, she didn’t hesitate to initiate conversations, even when she faltered in her use of some words.

“I go out on a limb to interact with the locals in their language,” she said. “When they realized I was actually trying, that I wasn’t just an annoying tourist, then they were happy to help me.”

While at Pitt, Richards enjoyed participating in Language Partners, a program run by Pitt’s English Language Institute that paired her with a young Russian woman and two Chinese graduate students. She found it challenging but rewarding to help her new friends order fast food or negotiate some of life’s twists and turns. For example, the “v” sound doesn’t exist in Mandarin. But when Richards told her Chinese partner to “make the ‘f’ sound and hum,” the barriers came down.

“What’s really cool about helping a nonnative person with my own language is that I understand where that gap is,” said Richards. “Or sometimes you want to discuss something interesting in American culture, and they don’t have a word for it. You have to be creative in how you communicate.”

Richards found plenty of other activities to make her Pitt experience well-rounded. A flutist since fifth grade and a trumpeter since 10th, she joined the Carpathian Music Ensemble and found herself playing the music she had learned about in Russian class.

She worked as a producer at WPTS, Pitt’s student radio station, and joined the Pitt Crew Club. An avid runner, she would frequently unwind during a 10-mile jog through Oakland and Polish Hill, developing a love for the local communities along the way.

For her senior project, Richards explored the Chinese legal system and the roles of individuals in settling disputes, whether the disagreements are between individuals or involve a business or the government. While in Shanghai, she purchased a stack of self-help law books published by the government with advice on solving legal problems.

“Some people view China as oppressive, but the leaders there recognize there will be disputes. They want people to resolve them peacefully,” Richards commented.

Even though Richards submitted an application and was accepted into law school, her love of teaching won out. She has applied to the Center for International Educational Exchange for a one-year teach-abroad program in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia.

Michael Giazzoni, adviser and director  of student assistantships in UHC,  first met Richards in 2008 when she was applying for the Chancellor’s Scholarship. He said he could already tell she was the type of person who went out of her way to develop her intellectual breadth and depth as well as her international interests.

“Andrea was clearly a person who was already engaged in the world, and I knew she would make us proud as a Chancellor’s Scholar. Pitt’s decision has been reaffirmed time and time again as we’ve seen the fantastic things she has been doing.”

The Ohio native hasn’t forgotten about her hometown during her heady days at Pitt. Richards occasionally returns to her high school in Bucyrus to talk to students about college life and the possibilities that lie ahead.

“I tell them they can go anywhere they want to,” she said. “Nothing is closed off. The world is open to them.”