Christopher Sfedu, a high school senior at Shipley, was chosen to participate in an Arabic language study program in Marrakesh, Morocco. Out of about 1,200 applicants from around the country, Sfedu was selected along with 19 other high school students for this opportunity. This intensive study took place this past summer over a six-week period sponsored by the U.S. Department of State through an immersion program called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. The NSLI-Y program fully scholarships about $10,000 per student to study abroad and learn one of seven languages. "To be honest," shares Sfedu, "the program seemed too good to be true."
In response to 9/11, the program was started in 2006 in order to promote the study of several "critical languages" which are languages that the Unites States Government feels are important for Americans to speak in order to promote international affairs and strengthen foreign relations. These languages consist of Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Turkish. In addition to learning a language, applicants participate in other activities to gain further insight into the local dialect and culture of these diverse regions by living with a host family and taking trips throughout the country. "Because of my interest in Arabic and international affairs, I decided to apply," says Sfedu.
The application process was rigorous and it took several months before Sfedu
heard back from the Department of State with their final selection. The extensive application process attempted to verify which students would be committed to learning the language, even after finishing the program, so that the scholarship would be a worthwhile investment. "I had to write a number of essays, submit my high school transcript, get a teacher recommendation, and participate in an interview. When I finally heard back, I was thrilled to hear that I was accepted!" says Sfedu.
Each student chose which of these seven diverse languages that were not traditionally taught in schools to learn. "Even though six weeks is a relatively long amount of time to go abroad, in language terms it is relatively short. In order to get the most out of this experience we would have very intense language classes for about six hours a day." With an interest in the Middle East and three years of studying Arabic already under his belt, Sfedu's language selection was obvious. "Arabic is really not that difficult to learn. It is extremely different from romance languages since it reads from right to left, consists of a unique alphabet script, and has only three main tenses; but Arabic is a very logical language."
Not only did Sfedu intend to improve his Arabic, he also wanted to understand the culture. Adhering to the cultural norm, the students also took a break to eat lunch with their host families and saw firsthand how family life is valued. In between classes, local speakers talked about Morocco. Sfedu explains, "Our interactions with the locals included information ranging from the religion of the Moroccan society, to the indigenous people known as Berbers, to Moroccan 'pop' music." One of the most fascinating aspects Sfedu encountered through dialoguing with the Moroccans was discovering their perception of America, which has been thoroughly influenced through television. Sfedu shares, "I realized that people really respect you so much more if you try to make an effort to absorb their culture and speak their language. Whether it was hailing a cab, or going to the market, locals really loved it if you tried to speak with them in their dialect--even if what you were saying wasn't a hundred percent grammatically correct, they really took it to heart for you to be heard in Arabic rather than English."
After high school, Sfedu plans to pursue Middle East and Arabic studies combined with business and economics. He shares, "I think there are so many political, economical, and educational opportunities in the Middle East today and I would like to continue studying that area of the world. This experience was such a valuable and rare opportunity. I would encourage anyone interested in languages to apply to this program. You never know what might happen!"