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Leaving home for a dream
Monroe High School student Javier Cifuentes stands outside his home south of Monroe Monday afternoon. Cifuentes will spend his junior year of school studying abroad in South Korea. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE- Javier Cifuentes, a Monroe High School student, is only 16 years old and already making his way to a challenging career in the U.S. government, dealing in North Korean relations. It's a dream he has had for several years.

Cifuentes became fascinated by the language and culture after stumbling upon a South Korean news broadcast in seventh grade.

Captivated by the foreign language, he taught himself to read and write Hangeul, the Korean writing system, at age 13 during spring break. Then he began watching multiple Korean television shows and listening to Korean music.

"I liked the sound of the language," he said, "and I watched a (Korean) TV show and I liked the show."

He has been looking for a way to study abroad ever since.

This August he will head to South Korea for a year of study in Seoul. He was awarded one of about 625 National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarships for 2013-2014.

Through the program funded by the U.S. Department of State, Cifuentes will serve as a citizen diplomat while developing the skills necessary to be a leader in the global community.

When he reached high school, Cifuentes became more aware of North Korean issues and wondered what he could do to help.

"After watching countless North Korean documentaries, I decided the first thing I had to do was to get serious in my Korean studies," he said.

He sought help through his school. The Monroe High School guidance team and Mr. Waski, the MHS principal petitioned the school board so Cifuentes could receive financial aid and begin Korean lessons online for credit in his sophomore year.

Afterwards, a teacher told him about the NSLI-Y scholarship.

"The application was very rigorous," Cifuentes said, "but I was luckily selected from the 3,000 American students who applied from all around the nation this year. I do not believe I would have earned the scholarship if the staff at MHS had not helped me in my journey to learn Korean."

Of the 625 scholarships awarded this year, only 12 were for spots in South Korea. NSLI-Y offers overseas study opportunities in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian, and Turkish.

The goals of the NSLI-Y program include sparking a life-long interest in foreign languages and cultures, as well as developing a corps of young Americans with the skills necessary to advance international dialogue in the private, academic or government sectors and to build upon the foundations developed through person-to-person relationships while abroad.

Cifuentes has already captured his life-long interest in the Korean language - watching Korean TV, listening to Korean music and connecting with Korean friends on social networks. He can understand enough to get the main idea of Korean newspaper articles and can have written conversations in Korean with his pen pals from Korea.

"I make it part of my everyday life," he said.

Last summer he attended a Korean music concert at Disneyland. Afterward, he found himself standing in line with recording artists from S.M. Entertainment, one of the three major record companies of Korea music. He took the opportunity to introduce himself and talk with them.

Once in Korea, Cifuentes plans to volunteer with students his own age who escaped North Korea, through a special program connecting American students with North Korean refugees.

When he returns to the U.S., Cifuentes plans to finish his senior year at Monroe High School and then move toward a career in government and North Korean relations.