Grant Allows Eight UVA Scholars to Deep-Dive into Foreign Language Study

Eight University of Virginia scholars will spend their summers immersed in foreign cultures and languages, thanks to Critical Language Scholarships from the U.S. Department of State.

They are among approximately 550 U.S. undergraduate and graduate students who received a scholarship from the program. They will spend seven to 10 weeks in intensive language institutes this summer in one of 13 countries to study languages the U.S. government has deemed “critical” – Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish or Urdu.

UVA’s participants are: John Wilder and John Al-Haddad, who will study Persian in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Michael Ly, who will study Chinese in Xi’an, China; Isir Said, who will study Arabic in Amman, Jordan; Samantha Merritt, who will study Korean in Gwangju, South Korea; and Khongorzul Khosbayar, Tierre Sanford and Adam Sykes, who will study Russian in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

“The Critical Language Scholarship is a fully funded opportunity to further one’s language abilities and learn about a foreign culture – without distraction,” said Andrus G. Ashoo, associate director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “With how many languages we teach at the University of Virginia, I hope that more and more students will pursue this award.”

The Critical Language Scholars program provides group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences. Participants, who are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship and apply their critical language skills in their future professional careers, hail from 49 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and represent more than 200 institutions of higher education from across the United States, including public and private universities, liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions and community colleges.

“The CLS also prepares students for further learning and experience abroad, which is demonstrated by the fact that among these students are a Fulbright U.S. Student Award recipient and a number of students who have already started the process of applying for next year,” Ashoo said.

A closer look at this year’s recipients:

• John Al-Haddad of Springfield, who graduated May 21 as a double major in Middle Eastern studies and history, will study Persian in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

“I have always had a personal yearning to learn new languages,” Al-Haddad said. “That deep desire of learning, compounded with my love for the Middle East, led me to Persian. This scholarship will allow me to hone my Persian language skills and allow me to develop a deeper understanding of the language. Along with my existing Arabic language skills, a newfound knowledge of Persian will allow me to excel in research of Middle Eastern history.”

Al-Haddad is a founding member of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity at UVA, former president of the Arab Student Organization, former executive board member of the Middle Eastern Leadership Organization and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. A graduate of West Springfield High School, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history.

• Khongorzul Khosbayar of Centreville, a rising third-year foreign affairs and Russian/Eastern European studies major, will travel to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, to study Russian.

“The Critical Language Scholarship to Russia gives me an opportunity to enhance my Russian skills and experience the uniqueness of the culture firsthand,” Khosbayar said. “I applied to CLS for the chance to practice what I learned from my professors in real-world situations.”

She is a member of Housing and Residence Life, Project Inspire and the Cavalier Daily and a student volunteer at the Career Center. A graduate of Centreville High School, she plans to study law and work toward “improving relations between the United States and Russia through policy and cultural exchange programs.”

• Michael Ly of Falls Church, who graduated May 21 as an East Asian studies and foreign affairs major, will study Chinese in Xi’an, China.

“I applied to the Critical Language Scholarship in order to develop a more genuine mastery of Chinese language, politics and society,” Ly said. “I believe that the Critical Language Scholarship will equip me with the experiences and skills necessary to succeed in a career in diplomacy or public service.”

He is a member of the Center for American English Culture and Language, the International Relations Organization, Madison House, Phi Beta Kappa, The Raven Society and the Wilson Journal of International Affairs.

“I am honored and humbled by this investment in my education and professional training,” Ly said.

• Samantha Merritt of Ft. Meade, Maryland, a rising fourth-year double major in public policy and leadership and foreign affairs, with a minor in East Asian studies and a concentration in Korean, in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, will study Korean in Gwangju, South Korea.

“This scholarship will further my cultural understanding of South Korea and assist me in my professional and academic goals,” Merritt said. “I applied for the Critical Language Scholarship after having finished elementary through advanced Korean at UVA, in order to continue my language studies through intensive summer study.”

She is a member of the External Committee on the Batten Undergraduate Council; the Women’s Leadership Development Program; the Women’s Asian American Leadership Initiative: Volunteers with International Students, Staff and Scholars (VISAS); and the Rotaract Club at UVA. A graduate of the Seoul American High School in Korea, she wants to get a master’s degree in international relations, public policy or Korean studies.

“I intend to work for the U.S. government after graduation, using my Korean language skills while working in the diplomatic or intelligence field in order to assist with advancing U.S. foreign policy and military relations,” she said.

• Tierre Sanford of Henderson, Nevada, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, will travel to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia to study Russian.

 “I am specifically interested in 20th-century Russian Jewish literature,” she said. “I study ‘The Black Book,’ a compilation of essays on the destruction sites of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union written from 1942 to 1946, Holocaust poetry in Russian literature and the relationship between memory and monuments in Russia.”

Sanford, who has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in Russian and linguistics with minors in ancient Near Eastern studies, editing and English, has received a Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship, a Steiner Summer Yiddish Program Grant and attended the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 Seminar, “A Research Introduction to the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.” She plans to be a professor of Russian language and literature.

“This scholarship is pivotal for my career in so many different ways,” she said. “It is giving me the chance to continue to improve my Russian language skills, which is something you should never stop trying to do as a Russian language instructor. It is also giving me the opportunity to further my research on monuments in Russia, specifically the monuments in Nizhnyj Novgorod. Finally, it will allow me to meet others who are interested in the same areas of study that I am.”

• Isir Said of Centreville, a rising third-year political and social thought and Arabic double major, will study Arabic in Amman, Jordan.

“I am interested in exploring the political, economic and social dynamics between the West and post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, and the political and social thought program would best allow me to explore the breadth of this relationship due to its interdisciplinary nature,” she said.

She is a member of Sustained Dialogue, the Arabic Conversation Club and the Kappa Delta sorority and a Madison House volunteer. This is her second Critical Language Scholarship, having studied before in Tangiers, Morocco, and she is a Critical Language Scholarship Alumni Ambassador. She wants to pursue a career as an international human rights lawyer.

“My aspiration to become an international human rights lawyer – focusing on groups in the Middle East and Africa – will be greatly facilitated by the furthering of my knowledge of Arabic and the culture of the Arab world,” she said. “This scholarship will help me advance my speaking abilities in the Arabic language. Acquiring this skill is crucial in order to engage with the communities I hope to dedicate my career to serving.”

• Adam Sykes of Richmond, who graduated May 21 as a double major in history and Slavic language and literature, will study Russian in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

“Despite four years of Russian classroom study, I have never traveled to Russia or a Russian-speaking nation,” Sykes said. “All my knowledge, my experience and my commentary on Russia comes from the classroom. How can one discuss a nation and its people without having lived with that nation’s people, breathing the same air, eating the same food? By living and learning abroad, I hope to close the gap between abstract study and practical experience.”

Sykes was active with the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist student campus ministry; and the Historical Simulation Society, a strategy game-playing group. He was inducted into both Phi Beta Kappa and Dobro Slovo, the Slavic National Honors Society.  He received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award to research how American radicals and conservatives in the early 20th century perceived and responded to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

“My passion has always resided within the Slavic Department at UVA and with the affiliated history, politics and literature courses within the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies,” Sykes said. “I hope to pursue a career which allows me to continue to study Russian and Eastern European history, but to simultaneously engage in the processes which affect U.S.-Russian relations on a daily basis. No matter where I end up, I hope my future career allows not only study, but engagement.”

• John Wilder of Springfield, who graduated with double major in foreign affairs and Middle Eastern languages and literatures, will study Persian in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

“I’m interested in the Middle East in and of itself – its culture, history, languages – as well as how it relates to the politics of the international system and toward U.S. policy-making,” Wilder said. “This interest in part stems from the fact that as a child, I lived in Jerusalem for three years while my parents worked abroad there.”

Wilder is a Fulbright Scholar who will study and work in Turkey, where he will teach English at Uludağ University. Wilder is a leader in the Arabic Conversation Club; an English as a second language tutor for Hoos for Refugees; a member of the Virginia Alpine Ski and Snowboard Team; and plays for “Skwad,” a co-ed adult league soccer team of UVA students. He is a second-time Critical Language Scholarship recipient, having studied Arabic in Tangiers, Morocco in 2014. He had previously studied in Morocco on an American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages scholarship. He is certified with non-native fluency in Arabic by the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages.

Wilder also had an independent study in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics focused on the motivations behind external intervention in civil wars, specifically those in Yemen both in 1994 and today.

“I hope to further my study of the Middle East and Foreign Affairs at the graduate level, before ultimately becoming a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State,” Wilder said. “As a scholar of the Middle East, this scholarship will provide me the opportunity to delve into one of the region’s most important languages, Persian, while simultaneously gaining cultural experience as I live abroad. My linguistic experience in Persian will complement that which I’ve already achieved in Arabic as well as that which I hope to achieve in Turkish while in Turkey, giving me a thorough linguistic and cultural background in the Middle East.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications