It’s not every day that you come across a family of Chinese language graduates from the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. This is precisely the case with the Helmen family.
On Sept. 7, Cpl. Caleb Helmen graduated from the Chinese Mandarin 64-week-long language program and received the Commandant’s Award, presented to those students who achieved outstanding scores and have significantly contributed to the local, academic and military community.
“It takes focus, determination and grit to have the level of self-discipline Cpl. Helman displayed as a student, bur more importantly as a Marine and leader during his time at DLIFLC,” said Marine Corps Commander Lt. Col. Anna Voyne.
While studying Chinese five days a week, six to seven hours per day with several hours of homework, Helmen was responsible for the overall readiness of 50 Marines, tutored students for more than 100 hours in Chinese and French and volunteered 200 hours in the local community.
“The Marine standing in front of you today did all of this with good attitude and professionalism. While holding different types of leadership billets, and earning an overall GPA of 3.8, he scored 2+/3/2 on his listening, reading and speaking [exam] respectively,” said Voyne. “For those of you who are unfamiliar with what those scores mean, think of Cpl. Helmen as outsmarting, outmaneuvering and obliterating the adversary,” she explained.
Helmen’s parents, Tanya and Ben, also graduates from the Chinese Basic Course, were present at the graduation. “We graduated in 2001 from this program and got married,” said Tanya, adding that her son was born in Monterey.
“It’s a hard course and the most rigorous academic challenge in the military you can do,” admitted Helmen, “It’s like college on steroids,” he said with a triumphant smile.
When asked what helped him achieve such high scores on his final exam, Helmen said that a definite advantage was being housed with students of the same language within the Marine barracks. “I was always able to ask people who were my senior, about certain things I didn’t understand.”
Another bonus was having instructors from all different parts of China with only one native English speaker on the teaching team. “Their attitude was that we had to cram, cram and cram, and if you were doing poorly, it was your fault, and you got more homework!” he said laughing.
“I liked the fact that nothing was sugar coated, they have honest feedback. For me, it was great, but for those with thin skin, I am not sure,” he said, adding that an additional advantage was being able to speak to his parents about Chinese culture and customs.
“Mom and Dad relayed their experiences and told me to not take anything personally. It was nice to be prepared,” he said.
In the end, it was the persistence and caring of the instructors that motivated Helman and pushed him to excel. “The teachers were great. Even when they were short of teachers, we never felt it in the classroom.”
“To learn another language is to learn another culture,” said Helmen, a lesson he learned from his instructors.