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Critical Language Scholarship Awardee Kelsey Bilek Studies Swahili in Tanzania

2019 CLS Tanzania Cohort
2019 CLS Tanzania cohort

Kelsey Bilek spent the summer studying Swahili as an awardee of the 2019 U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program

The CLS Program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. CLS scholars gain critical language and cultural skills in languages that are less commonly taught in U.S. schools, but are essential for America’s engagement with the world, contributing to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security. 

In 2019, Bilek was one of 550 competitively selected American students representing 233 colleges and universities across the United States to receive a CLS award. Each CLS scholar spent eight to ten weeks in one of 26 locations studying Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu. 

The program provides funded, group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains. CLS scholars serve as citizen ambassadors, representing the diversity of the United States abroad and building lasting relationships with people in their host countries. Alumni of the program go on to continue their language study and apply their critical language skills in their future careers. 

Bilek, who graduated with a master’s in Global Health this past spring, spent eight weeks studying Swahili intensively at the MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation (MS-TCDC) in Arusha, Tanzania. We connected with Kelsey to hear more about her decision to apply for CLS, what she learned, and what advice she has to share for future applicants.  

What made you decide to apply for the CLS Program? 

Photo of Kelsey Bilek on a bike with Mt Meru in the background
Bilek on a bike ride with Mt. Meru in the background

I applied for the CLS Program because I’d spent time in East Africa before and I saw learning Swahili as an opportunity to enhance any future experiences in the region. I was also excited about the chance to learn more about the culture and history of Tanzania, especially how to respectfully navigate it as a foreigner participating in global health work. Lastly, given that I was going to graduate just before leaving for Tanzania, the non-competitive eligibility that accompanies completion of the Program was another perk. 

How do you imagine the CLS experience will help support your future goals? 

Linguistic and cultural knowledge is a huge asset for any future work I might be part of in the region. From learning how to tell time in Swahili (there’s a trick to it!) to knowing how to respectfully greet people, understanding the language at an intermediate level as well as cultural differences and similarities is a great advantage. More importantly, through the CLS experience, I’ve made lasting connections and friendships with people from the region, those working in the field of global health, and other students interested in global work. 

Mt. Meru on Bilek’s daily walk home from campus

Can you talk about your language institution and the structure of lessons?  

Photo of Kelsey Bilek and her language partner
Bilek (right) and Ruth, her language partner

The language institution where I studied, MS-TCDC, was excellent. The teachers were open-minded, patient, and really supportive of our learning. Students in the program were placed in various classes according to our level of Swahili and in my beginner-level class, there were a total of six students. We had class in the morning every day, with a break for teatime, where we would talk with other students, teachers, and staff on campus in Swahili while sipping chai. After lunch, we would meet with our local language partners or go on cultural excursions, the most memorable of which were the two weekends we spent off campus visiting Ngorongoro Crater and the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was incredible having in-depth opportunities to see a bit more of the country, learn about its history, and explore certain fields in detail (wildlife, agriculture, gender equality, economics, archaeology, etc.). 

What is one piece of advice you would offer to applicants, or students who are considering applying to CLS? 

My advice would be that if you’re interested in the CLS program, you should apply. There was a wide range of ages, academic interests, and degree levels represented in the CLS Tanzania 2019 cohort. Due to the diversity of the group, I learned a lot from my peers, really enhancing the experience. Keep in mind not just what you’d like to learn from the program, but how you’ll be contributing to the experience, as well. 

Photo of students learning to prepare Tanzanian sambusas
2019 CLS Tanzania cohort learning to make Tanzanian sambusas

The CLS Program runs every summer and is open to American undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities (must be a U.S. citizen by the application deadline). You can participate in the program after you graduate but must be actively enrolled at the time of the application deadline.  

Graduate students applying to the CLS Program are encouraged to connect with the Office of Fellowships & Awards for application support and feedback. 

Applications for the summer 2020 program are due November 19, 2019 at 5 p.m. Pacific. 

Isy Okafor on building language skills through fellowships

Have you ever had a goal or dream so ambitious it felt impossible to reach? Many of us have stepped away from an ambition simply because the steps to reach it were unclear.

Isy Okafor, a recent graduate who earned her master’s in materials science & engineering, has set an example for how small steps — such as using YouTube to learn a new language — can lead to more opportunities and, eventually, a goal realized.

Photo of Isioma Okafor

Isy taught herself Korean as an undergraduate student, and tested into intermediate-level Korean courses as a master’s student at the UW. Last summer, she was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship — a scholarship managed by the U.S. State Department to support the study of languages critical to U.S. interests. She was also awarded the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and, using the fellowships back-to-back, spent all of last summer in Korea doing intensive language study.

On a very busy day last March — in between taking an exam and preparing for a job interview — Isy found out she was awarded the prestigious Blakemore Freeman Fellowship to study Korean in Busan, South Korea. We spoke with Isy about how she taught herself Korean, her previous experiences in Korea supported by two language fellowships, and how language learning enriched her time as a graduate student.

What was it like to teach yourself Korean? What was challenging about this process, and what was rewarding? What tools did you use? 

It was fun teaching myself Korean! When I first started learning, I picked up vocabulary very quickly and it felt very good when I would watch a T.V. show and hear a word or grammar point that I recently learned. Occasionally, I would get upset if I kept studying something repeatedly and it wouldn’t stick. When that happened, I refused to move on until I got it, but since I was frustrated it made it even harder for me to learn it. It wasn’t until I adopted the attitude of “If I don’t get it the first time it’s okay, I’ll read other things and come back to that topic later” that my self-study became easier and even more enjoyable.

My study tools included a travel-oriented beginners’ book, Instagram, and a lot of Youtube. I mostly watched comedy sketches because I like seeing how different languages and cultures perceive humor. I like to think I’m pretty funny in English but it doesn’t quite translate well to Korean; so, one of my goals is to get a handle on Korean humor so I can tell jokes in Korean as well. 

Why did you start learning Korean? Was it out of passion and interest, or a specific career goal, or both? 

I was first introduced to Korea in my middle school history class. I found it fascinating how fast South Korea modernized after the Korean War to become what it is today. After reading more about their history, I started learning about Korean culture and found a lot of similarities between Korean and Nigerian culture. I have also always been interested in engineering and seeing as how South Korea is home to many top semiconductor/electronics companies, it almost seemed like fate being introduced to Korean culture. I feel lucky that my interests and career aligned because often times people feel forced to choose one over the other, and in my case, I can pursue both to the fullest.

What was it like to spend a summer in Korea? What did you gain from that experience, and how have those skills influenced your approach to your studies or work? 

To be honest, I found living in Korea to be an amusing experience. Again, I saw so many similarities between Korea and Nigeria, not only in the culture but also in the society and even the traffic! Korea was very different compared to anywhere I’d ever been before, yet it felt familiar at the same time. This gave me more room to learn about the more nuanced parts of the culture and how Korean society functioned.

I had applied for the Critical Language Scholarship the year before and was rejected, so getting into the program last summer was a dream come true. I had no intentions of wasting the opportunity, so I spoke to anyone and everyone who would listen to my poorly structured, child-like sentences. If I was lost, which happened pretty often, I would ask strangers for directions. If I didn’t understand what was going on, I would ask the nearest person to explain it to me. During my year of self-study, I only read and wrote so my speaking skills were almost non-existent. The following year at the University of Washington, I worked with my Korean professor, EunYoung Won, to improve my speaking, but I was still miles behind the other students. However, after my summer in Korea, my speaking skills improved tremendously. My time abroad taught me that it’s very important to ask questions, no matter how trivial you think they may be. For the most part, people won’t be frustrated with you for putting in effort in your language studies.

Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t get CLS the first time around. The old me wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to throw myself into Korean culture and society they way current me would.

What tips would you give to a fellow student who is applying for language study fellowships such as the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship or the Critical Language Scholarship? 

To anyone applying for FLAS or CLS, I would tell them to think about the reason they are pursuing this opportunity and establish whether or not this experience will help you achieve your goals. Make sure you really know yourself. When I compare my rejected CLS essay to the one I was awarded with, I can see a stark difference in my level of introspection. 

What will the Blakemore Fellowship allow you to do? How will this impact your career opportunities and your approach to your work? 

This fellowship will allow me to solely dedicate my time to studying Korean. I will also have the opportunity to explore Korea’s engineering industry, and I can dedicate time towards discovering specific companies/sectors that I would like to apply to in the future. I hope to collaborate with Korean research institutes, and having a strong background knowledge in Korean culture will lead me to be successful in these pursuits.

How have you navigated balancing your studies in engineering with pursuing language work? How do you talk about these priorities with your colleagues who may not “get” these interests? 

Although I enjoy engineering, it cannot be the only thing I do 24/7. Pursuing other interests keeps me balanced and I strongly encourage others to step outside their field and diversify their activities. This helps avoid burn out and regrets later in life. If you have the opportunity to explore other things, you should take it because many years down the road you’ll have no one to blame but yourself, and that kind of regret will eat at you like you wouldn’t believe.

To be honest, I did not tell my colleagues about my language studies. I applaud those who find happiness focusing everything on engineering, but for me that’s just not the case. Based on my interactions, I could tell that me pursuing other interests, especially language, would not be received well so I kept it to myself.

What advice would you give to a graduate student who wants to “break from the mold” of what’s expected in their department? 

You don’t have to be alone when you decide to step outside of your department and deviate from the norm. Although I didn’t have any colleagues I could share this with, I found a very strong support group in my Korean class. I went into this thinking I would be taking this language journey alone, but I was very wrong. I’m very thankful for my Professor Won. When I started class, I wanted to quit in the first week because I was struggling so much, but thanks to her encouragement I stayed. I barely passed the interview to enter Korean at level 2  – which put me very far behind my classmates and made me the only graduate student amongst undergraduates who had already formed friendships the year before– yet I still formed very close bonds with many of my classmates. To them, I am also thankful for their patience and understanding.