Who would’ve thought that a childhood fascination with Russian culture would eventually morph into an opportunity to study in Russia? Yet, that’s exactly what happened to a recent Memphis high school graduate.
John Leake, a graduate of Lausanne Collegiate School, was awarded a National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship by the U.S. Department of State. That is why he is in Yaroslavl, Russia right now studying Russian language and culture during a six-week adventure that ends Aug. 4th.
“Ever since I was a child, I have always loved Russia,” Leake told The New Tri-State Defender before leaving for the Russian stay that began June 21st.
“I first fell in love with Russia when I was seven years old because that was the first time I watched the 1997 animated movie, “Anastasia,” which was loosely based on the myth of the survival of Tsar Nicholas’ youngest daughter in July 1918. The movie sparked my fascination with Russian culture and history. In addition, I remember asking for a comprehensive book on Russia for Christmas when I was a child.
“As the years passed, I began to learn more and more about Russia, and despite its sometimes brutal topics, I found myself wanting to visit the former land of the Tsars and totalitarian states,” said Leake. “But I soon realized that in order to truly understand Russia’s rich history and tradition I would need to learn the language because it would be a window into true Russian culture.”
Launched in 2006, the NSLI-Y program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students to learn less commonly taught languages via summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs.
“In general, what we’re looking for in candidates for the program are students who are interested in language study and those that are prepared for an overseas experience; students in high school who are perhaps already thinking beyond what they see as possibilities for their career, and how language study can fit into that,” said Bart Pogue, the senior program officer for NSLI-Y.
Pogue said that the program also looks for students who possess maturity, curiosity and a good sense of humor – the kinds of characteristics that makes one able to deal with the frustrations of living in a foreign country for a certain amount of time.
The State Department annually offers approximately 625 students the chance to study Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, or Turkish overseas through NSLI-Y. Students are chosen through a rigorous selection process. The 625 scholarship winners were culled from 3,600-plus applications.
NSLI-Y’s aims included increasing the number of Americans who can engage with native speakers of critical languages.
“We think it’s important to learn languages that aren’t commonly taught because these are languages, in many instances, that are going to be critical in the present and the future for American citizens to know,” Pogue said. “Whatever fields students are hoping to find themselves studying and working in, we think that a knowledge of critical languages and cross-cultural understanding is very important.”
Participants in the Russian summer program receive a minimum of 120 language class hours and stay with host families.
Q&A with John Leake
The New Tri-State Defender: How did you find out about the scholarship program? Why did you decide to apply for the program?
John Leake: Last summer, I was surfing the Internet for study abroad opportunities that I could pursue the summer after I graduated high school. I wanted an opportunity that was low-cost or fully funded. It didn’t take me long to find NSLI-Y and after some research and talking with past participants I decided to apply. My main reasons for applying were that I wanted to study Russian language and culture and the program was fully funded by the U.S. Department of State.
TSD: How do you plan on using what you’re going to learn in this program over the summer to help you in your future career? What career do you want to pursue? In addition to learning Russian, what else do you hope to get out of your trip to Russia?
JL: I plan on using what I learn this summer by applying it to a career in international affairs. I want to pursue a career in international affairs and mostly likely want to work for the Foreign Service or the United Nations. I also want to go to law school. In addition to learning Russian, I hope that this trip will tell me whether or not I would like to pursue a career abroad.
TSD: What college will you be attending? And do you plan on studying Russian in college? What will your major be?
JL: I will be attending New York University in the fall and I plan on studying Russian. I am currently undecided on my major, but I am leaning towards International Studies or Anthropology.
TSD: In your opinion, why is it important for students, such as yourself, to learn foreign languages?
JL: I believe that students should learn a foreign language because it helps them learn another culture and it helps them reflect on their native language and culture by assessing the differences as well as the similarities. I also think it makes students more competitive in the job search if they know another language.
TSD: Are you interested in learning any other foreign languages? If so, which ones?
JL: I took Spanish all through high school and I will continue studying the language in college, along with Russian. I am also interested in learning Arabic and French.
TSD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JL: If high school students are interested in learning another language and culture, I would highly recommend applying for his program. Plus, it’s free!