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Student Awarded State Department Language Scholarship

Student Awarded State Department Language Scholarship

Jessica Zhang ’25 has an ambitious goal for this summer: to become conversant in Arabic. She’ll pursue that goal while spending six weeks in Morocco, as part of a U.S. State Department program for students.

student Jessica Zhang speaking at a lectern in Memorial Chapel

Zhang, from Lexington, Massachusetts, was one of 540 students selected from thousands of applicants across the United States for a National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship. The program is designed to help young Americans learn languages that are key to advancing international dialogue and collaboration and promoting cross-cultural understanding, including Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persia, Russian, and Turkish.

After a two-day orientation in Washington, Zhang will travel to Marrakech, where she’ll live with a host family. She’ll take classes at the Center for Language and Culture, where she’ll study Modern Standard Arabic as well as Darija, the local Moroccan dialect. She’ll also visit historical sites, take a short trip to Casablanca, and take part in cultural experiences — “like cooking!” she said.

While NMH does not offer Arabic courses, Zhang did take an interdisciplinary course, Islamic Middle East, last year, which fueled her interest in Arabic-speaking and Muslim nations. She plans to pursue her interests in international relations, the Middle East, and Arabic in college. “Getting a headstart on the Arabic that I'll be learning in college is great,” she said. 

Zhang learned about NSLI-Y from Sabrina Hernandez, a teaching fellow at NMH who took part in the program when she was a student. “While the more popular languages to learn —  Spanish, French, and German, for example — have more opportunities in academia, Arabic is a bit of an isolated language that high school students rarely get access to,” Zhang said. “I have loved Arabic from the first moment I saw it written, so I was thrilled that the program even existed and was not only merit-scholarship (you even get a stipend to spend in Morocco!) but offered complete immersion in addition to language-learning. 

“It’s not just a classroom experience; it’s a cultural experience,” she added. “There is no better way to learn a language faster than to be flung into its foreign environment.”

In addition to acquiring language skills, “I hope to appreciate and understand a part of the world that I've never been to before,” Zhang said. “I want to see its history, its beauty, its little idiosyncrasies. I want to push myself to meet people with entirely different lifestyles and worldviews than mine.” 

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