Studying only one language simply isn't enough for Ashlin Gates, and the traditional high school offerings aren't enough either.
"I like to study really obscure languages," the Riverton High sophomore said.
Ashlin recently won a language scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). The U.S. State Department-sponsored program will pay travel, room and board of a six-week foreign immersion session for Ashlin to learn Persian in Tajikistan. After a careful selection process of interviews, essays and teacher recommendations, Ashlin was chosen on the basis of academic excellence, language aptitude and maturity.
The NSLI-Y is a U.S. government scholarship dedicated to immersion and exchange programs for American high school students. The program focuses on Middle Eastern and Asian languages.
Bart Pogue of the American Councils, which oversees the NSLI-Y, says the program concentrates on these languages specifically because they are overlooked in high school language classes.
"There are plenty of opportunities for kids to go to France and learn French," Pogue said, "but there are a lot fewer opportunities to go to, say, Turkey or Japan. And these are the places where things are happening."Ashlin first whet her appetite for foreign languages when she took up Spanish to better talk with her Peruvian best friend. Since then, she's been on two humanitarian visits to Peru to hone her Spanish skills, studies Spanish and Chinese at Riverton High, and regularly attends a Riverton community center to learn Tamil, one of 20 official languages in India. The language studies are a pastime for Ashlin, and she plans to use her skills for something more substantial in the future.
"I wanted to learn Tamil because I really like Indian movies," said the budding linguist. "I'd definitely like to use language in my career one day, maybe as a foreign officer."
Pogue says the State Department initiative tries to invigorate interest in less popular languages to boost career choices and cultural understanding. While the high school standards of Spanish and French will always remain important, he says, the government wants to help future leaders connect with places such as China, Korea, Russia and the Middle East, where the need for business contacts and diplomatic relations is rising.
Ashlin stumbled across the scholarship opportunity on the American Field Service (AFS) website while looking for suitable exchange programs to satisfy her passion for language and her parents' desire for safety. Ashlin's humanitarian trips to Peru align with the diplomatic mission of the AFS, which began as a volunteer medical unit during World War I and used leftover funds to stretch the international community's arms.
The AFS partners with programs such as the Washington, D.C.-run NSLI-Y to have boots on the ground familiar with local families and local environments as a safety precaution. Ashlin will be on the trip with 16 other students and federal chaperones. They will spend half their time in a group home and half with their respective host families, jumping between lessons and field trips to bazaars and cultural landmarks.
"The goal was and still is to foster world peace," said Barbara Canley, a volunteer employee of the AFS who supervised Ashlin's scholarship application and interview process. "The hope being that if we lived with and knew people from other places, we'll be less likely to take up arms against them. Students like Ashlin have a great opportunity to do that."