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BOGACZYK: Napier Changes Foreign Language from Hoops to Chinese

Sharon Napier
April 29, 2016



HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- A member of the Marshall men's basketball staff is headed overseas again. It isn't what you're probably thinking ... This is no recruiting trip.

Sharon Napier, the executive assistant for Coach Dan D'Antoni and his staff, will be off to Taiwan this summer, after winning a Critical Language Scholarship. A Marshall senior majoring in International Affairs, Napier applied to study Chinese through the CLS program.

Her eventual goal?

Napier, who lives in Huntington with her husband, Jeremy, wants to work as a U.S. State Department diplomat in East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Napier will leave the hoops office in early June for Tainan, Taiwan, where she will live with a host family and spend two months learning Mandarin. She previously has made two trips to mainland China.

"It's the first time the program has sent people to Taiwan, and I'm the third person from Marshall to get this scholarship, which is pretty cool," Napier said. "Jeremy will come to visit, but because it's an intensive program -- I'm not allowed to speak English at all -- I'll be staying with a host family and taking classes every day and working with a one-on-one mentor to practice.



"The goal is for you to advance your language a whole year worth of study in two months. You can have visitors, but they kind of want you to limit it because they want you focused.

"Yes, I'd eventually like to work for the State Department, but there is a long route to take before that. My next step will be to go into another graduate program. I know; I like studying. I'm a nerd, a glutton for punishment. I keep going to school."

Napier, 29, is a St. Louis native whose family relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where she graduated from Westerville North High School. She has what she calls "a long academic history."

She graduated from Miami (Ohio) with a B.A. in sociology, then went to Dallas Theological Seminary for her master's in Theology. Sharon Rogers met her future husband -- he played basketball at Huntington High and then West Virginia State -- at the seminary.

The couple moved to China -- to teach English -- in 2012 and returned a year later, as Jeremy was hired as youth minister at First Baptist Church of Kenova. He's also now the Herd men's basketball team chaplain.

What possessed them to go to China to teach English four years ago?

"We went to get away from Dallas and to try something new," Sharon Napier said. "That got me interested in Mandarin because I had to. We went without really knowing anything. We lived in Shenyang, in northeast China, near North Korea. We came back to Huntington in August 2013.

"Part of my theological training was in cross-cultural communication and I had started working with a Chinese church in Dallas. I was teaching their children every Sunday. It was a very small church and they'd have their service in Chinese, and afterward they'd have lunch together, traditional Chinese food. And I just thought it would be really cool to go to China and experience their culture first-hand.

"It wasn't a culture I had any contact with outside of that setting before. So, it was really just kind of a passing thought, `You know, it would be really awesome to go ...'"

Napier said the circumstances seemed to point her toward her current track.

"The opportunities came through Jeremy," she said. "He was working for AT&T at the time, a man came into his store in Dallas and  they said, `This is the kind of work I do, placing people in China to teach English, etc.' So, even though he wasn't as interested as me, he said his wife was interested in doing something like that.

"It happened two different occasions, actually. The first time, the man sent us an email, said I have two positions for you guys at a university, and that kind of fell through. So, we said we guessed that meant it wasn't supposed to happen. A couple months later, a second person comes into the store, same thing, different organization, different place (in China).

"We tried it out. It was a crazy experience. We went to China and we were thrown in. We came back in a year. We just didn't like the place. It was freezing, near Russia, Siberian winter; it was horrible. The culture shock was just unbelievable. But there was something that stuck about China with me to make me want to go back and continue studying.

"I think, one, it was kind of a challenge. I'm a glutton for punishment. And the culture is so entirely different, it's intriguing, and learning Chinese is different from any language I've known."

Napier took high school French, and she studied German while in Germany during her Miami (Ohio) days. In the seminary, she learned Hebrew and Greek. "So, by the time I got to Chinese, I had a system of kind of how to learn a foreign language," she said.

And after Napier enrolled at Marshall to study International Affairs, she picked up a different language ... of sorts.

"I've been in the basketball office two years this summer," she said. "I'd been here almost a year and I was helping Jeremy with the youth minister job and I wasn't working full-time, so I needed a job and the former chaplain, Roger Adams, said, `Hey, there's an executive position open over there at basketball office.'

"I had done that kind of work before in Texas, so that's something I can do. It was with Northwestern Mutual. I figured `administrative assistant,' across the board, has some of the same things to do. When I came in, I told Coach up front I didn't know anything about basketball. He said that was OK.

"But I kind of compare it to learning Chinese because I went to China for the first time not knowing anything about China really, not knowing any Chinese -- you're thrown into the fire, have to adapt and learn quickly, so it's kind of the same thing. Basketball has a terminology and language all its own, so it's kind of like that. You learn as you go."

After her two-month trip to Taiwan this summer, Napier will return to Marshall and hopes to finish her degree a year from now.

"My hope then is -- but it's not guaranteed -- to go to Johns Hopkins University and they have a program in Nanjing, China," Napier said. "It's a joint program, the only one of its kind, with Nanjing University and Hopkins here in the states, and you get a degree from both countries. Then, you write your master's thesis in Chinese."

Napier is finishing a spring semester of nine hours, combined with her full-time job in men's basketball. She said it's all worked out with the support of D'Antoni and his assistants.

"I started here in the summer (2014), and then I didn't take fall classes right away, but in the spring semester (a year ago) I went ahead and got back into school," Napier said. "Here at Marshall I can do that, because the university allows full-time employees to take so many hours a week. And Coach D'Antoni -- he's all about academics, and he's made a major push for his guys to excel academically -- he was fine with it.

"Coach has been very supportive in what I'm doing every step of the way, and I really appreciate that."

Asked about her sports background, Napier smiled and said, "Dance was my sport ... No basketball." She obviously had the right stuff for the CLS award, however, being selected as one of about 550 winners nationally across 14 languages, from more than 5,000 applicants.

"I'm a researcher by nature, and part of being an administrative assistant, you really have to know how to find information about things," Napier said when asked about how she learned about the Critical Language program. "I researched and came across the Critical Language Scholarship and we just happen to have a National Scholarship office here, so I went there and inquired with the ladies there about what I should do, how I should approach applying for it. I did know it was something I'd want to do. I really just kind of happened upon it."

So, how well does Napier speak Chinese before heading abroad for an intense summer?

"Personally, I'd say about a 3 or 4 (on a scale of 1-10)," she said. "That's what I would say, because I know how much I don't know. I have a long way to go to get where I need to be to even do this -- the master's program I want -- because your language level has to be very good to be taking classes and writing theses in Mandarin.

"That's why I'm doing the Critical Language Scholarship, to prepare me for that, because I've never had any university level classes in Mandarin. It's all been living there, and self-study. Usually, when I'm with Chinese people (locally), they're in awe I can speak any Chinese, just because a lot of Americans don't know how to speak Chinese. So, Chinese people here are great and they're just excited if you can say, `Hello.' They're nice and tell you your Chinese is really good, even if you only know one phrase.

"I'm really looking forward to this. I'm very excited, but I haven't gotten to think about it much because of classes. Next week things finish with exams, and then I can allow myself to really process and prepare for what's ahead.

"I'm interested to see how much I improve. I need a lot of work on my speaking. Hopefully, this does wonders. I've got a long way to go to get where I want to be."