Where Are They Now: Conor McMahon

Conor McMahon standing in front of a building with his host family in Taiwan.

Conor McMahon Spent Summer 2019 Studying Mandarin in Taiwan on a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS)

A Long, Twisted Journey

“At first it was just a general curiosity about philosophy,” says Conor, who graduated with a master’s degree from UB in 2019. “It’s not necessarily [philosophy] content that you get interested in. It’s more of a methodology for approaching problems. That was very attractive to me, so I wanted to explore it in all the avenues I could get.”

One of Conor’s previous professors at Canisius College had taught in China on a Fulbright grant, and Conor had the opportunity to go on a summer program with him to study Chinese philosophy in Fujian. “I didn’t speak any Mandarin at that point and I just fell in love with it,” says Conor. “The characters were so beautiful. It was a mystery that you wanted to crack.” Later on, he spent a year in Beijing studying Mandarin funded by the Confucius Institute. These experiences culminated in Conor applying for and winning a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study Mandarin in Taiwan during the summer of 2019.

“It’s been a long, twisted journey,” says Conor. “Life always throws curveballs at you and it hasn’t been a straight shot to where I am now.”

When giving advice to first-year college students, Conor can speak from experience. “Go to class,” he jokes. “When you start out, you’ll face setbacks. It didn’t go well for me at my first school. I had to leave. I was not showing up to classes; I was doing very poorly.” Conor began his undergraduate career at Rochester Institute of Technology and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Canisius College.

At UB, Conor became heavily involved with the Confucius Institute, which supports education and research about Chinese language and culture at UB and throughout Western New York. Conor audited Chinese language courses, tutored, and attended activities. “I would spend my time engaging with the Chinese community [at UB] and trying to speak the language” he says.

It was at a Confucius Institute event that Conor first heard about the CLS, mere weeks before the application was due. “I was immediately attracted to [CLS] because it dovetailed with previous opportunities that I got for studying language,” he says. Conor reached out to Office of Fellowships and Scholarships Assistant Director Megan Stewart, who had given the presentation, for another look at his application before submitting it.

“It’s absolutely possible to be up against the deadline and write a good essay but still, have someone else read your essays,” says Conor. “It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s the first thing that you should do. A lot of times you can’t see the little mistakes.”

When deciding whether to apply for the CLS, Conor suggests considering how the experience and country’s culture will impact your life moving forward. Though the program does not leave time for personal projects or research, the language and cultural expertise gained will only benefit a student’s future work. “They want students who are looking to integrate this experience into their lives in a transformative way that will be used further down the line,” he says.

Be Brave and Be Positive

The CLS is open to any field of study, from business, to international politics, to comparative literature.  The program offers over a dozen languages, most of which require no prior study. All CLS grantees take a pledge to speak only in the target language during the program, which is challenging enough. Conor’s placement city of Tainan, Taiwan takes it a step further with homestays. “You can’t get fuller immersion than that,” says Conor. “Classroom study is one thing, but living and interacting [with native speakers] all the time [is another].”

At the beginning of the CLS program in Taiwan, the American students, who range from undergraduates to doctoral students, spend time adjusting and getting to know each other. Then there is a formal dinner where host families are paired off with students one by one. Conor calls the transition from familiar to unfamiliar culture “immediately jarring.”

“I can’t say that it was easy or simple to integrate with a family in a foreign language,” says Conor. “That’s a huge challenge and it’s really easy to get worn down and just want to quit.”

Conor’s host family wanted to engage with him right away, but it took time before they got used to each other’s way of speaking and became better at communicating little by little. “You have to just be brave, really,” says Conor. “I got through it by being positive and being open to getting over this initial hump.” No matter how tired he was on a given day, Conor forced himself to put in the effort to get to know his host family.

After having breakfast with his host family every morning, Conor biked across the city to the university. Classes began at 8:30 a.m. and finished at 2 p.m. There was always a break for a cup of tea, a tradition which Conor continues back in the U.S. He would participate in cultural activities in the afternoon, or practice with a native speaker. Then came the homework. Students are split into 4-5 different levels of proficiency; Conor was placed in the second-highest level. “I can’t lie and say it’s not a lot of work,” he says.

By the book, CLS covers a year of language study in a span of 7-10 weeks. Of all the language programs Conor has participated in, “[CLS] has been by far the most organized and it pushed me the furthest. If you want to take a step forward in language study, there’s no better way to do it.”

Outside of formal language classes, CLS grantees spent time learning about traveling around the country, all while speaking exclusively in Mandarin. Though Taiwan and China share a common language, Taiwan has a unique history separate from the mainland resulting from occupations and influence from other cultures. The CLS cohort traveled to experience Taiwan’s beautiful nature, which featured towering mountains right next to pristine beaches. “I have some amazing memories of jumping in the ocean and swimming,” says Conor.

The Journey Continues

Conor is currently a PhD student at the University of Oklahoma exploring the similarities between Chinese and Western philosophies. “People have thought [Chinese and Western philosophy are] quite different, but there have been some new trends in epistemology to find some links,” he says. As a research assistant at the University of Oklahoma, Conor finds that he has the flexibility to maintain his language skills better without the responsibilities of teaching courses, and he has seen how language research feeds into philosophy research.

After the peak of CLS, advancing in a language is difficult and maintaining proficiency is the goal. Months later, Conor continues to study and practice Mandarin every day. “I’ve got this sick momentum that doesn’t stop,” he says. Conor has also been accepted as a CLS Ambassador, giving him an opportunity to share his experience with other students interested in applying.

When it comes to future curves in life’s journey, Conor doesn’t want to limit himself. “In the humanities, be creative and seek opportunities where you can find them,” he says. Jobs as a philosophy professor are hard to come by and involve a lot of hard work and a heavy teaching load, yet it’s something Conor loves and plans to pursue.

“I’m open to a lot of things. I’ve tried to make it so my study in philosophy is good analysis skills and critical thinking, and good writing skills,” says Conor. “[If you] just study Emmanuel Kant, then it’s professorship or bust. I’ve tried to make myself diverse.”

Due to COVID-19, all summer 2020 CLS programs have been suspended and university students will face an uncertain global economy and job market upon graduation. Once again, Conor offers an optimistic message born from his own experiences.

“Don’t give up. Life happens” he says. “You can get rolled over by it or you can see through. No one has foresight about the future. If you can tolerate some downturns, an upturn comes.”

This interview was conducted in January 2020 by Lisa Gagnon.