Studying Russian in Saint Petersburg
This summer I received a grant from Georgetown University to study Russian in Saint Petersburg. I previously studied Russian for 2 years at my undergraduate institution, but having taken a year away from the language I wanted to improve my skills. Given the limited duration of time available to devote to studying, I decided that immersion training would be the best means of accomplishing maximum results, and organized to study at the Derzhavin Institute in Saint Petersburg. The school is a full immersion intensive language program serving foreigners of all nationalities – although I was the only American there for the duration of my trip. We attended classes for the length of the day and went on cultural excursions at night. I also conducted personal research into various matters of personal interest including Russian history and foreign policy. Overall the experience was exceptional – we were compelled to speak Russian at all times, and while my understanding is still rather basic I found that spending time in an immersion setting developed my willingness to connect the language to thoughts much better than years of classroom study ever had. This being said, I found the constant immersion quite strenuous. Thankfully everyone at the school was exceedingly helpful and I made great strides in my short time there.
My funding also permitted me to travel to Moscow for a short stay, to see the sights and conduct some of my personal historical research. Later in the summer I travelled to Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam on my own dime to further research Cold War history.
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
While being part of the Security Studies program is a huge boost my career prospects, having foreign language experience is essentially a requirement for individuals in our field. Because I have experience in Cold War history, Russian was always my language of interest, to many of my past advisers’ consternation. They suggested that I take a more strategically significant language, such as Chinese, Arabic or Farsi, instead. Recent events have borne out my study of Russian, however. Furthering my Russian knowledge is a key component of advancing my attractiveness to employers both inside and outside the government.
Traveling to Russia also served the dual purpose of allowing me to obtain a basic, on-the-ground understanding of conditions within Russia and the Russian mentality, particularly at a time during which the West in increasingly becoming alienated from Russia. While this is harder to quantify in terms of a resume, I find it invaluable to my ability to analyze and understand Russian behavior. There is something intangible about being able to live and work around a people for a significant period of time that grants some inexplicable understanding of their problems, mentality, and views. Traveling to Saint Petersburg developed this sense for me, complimenting my study of Russian history and language with a real-world component.
Did anything surprise you?
While I believed I had a strong understanding of the culture, country, and people before traveling to Russia, nothing can fully prepare one of the experience of being in a world that is so totally different from the West in its traditions, mentality, and outlook. Traveling to Europe is all well and good, but something familiar remains in these places because of the shared cultural and philosophical trends which link America to the so-called “West.” On a previous trip I spent time in Turkey, and traveling to Russia reminded me of just how surprising it can be to be in a totally different part of the world – one that has developed different traditions, has experienced a far different history, and thus has entirely different reactions to standard impulses.
Winston Churchill once called Russia “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
I was surprised to find out how much this is still the case. Certainly, during communism, it makes sense that the East and the West would find each other alien and confusing, but my time in Russia illustrated that the differences are far deeper than that alone. Even throughout the 17 and 1800s, Europeans visiting Russia found the mix of familiar, European cities and strange, eastern cultures completely vexing – as did I, visiting in 2015. None of the differences are on the surface – they tend to be deeply set and hard to put one’s finger on. Nonetheless, I left Russia with a clear sense of just how important deep-rooted historical and cultural trends can be in informing the modern mindset of a nation.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
Upon getting to know some Russians, I was interested in how they framed their view of the world and of global politics. I have known Turks, Greeks, Dutch and others of various nationalities before, and all describe the world and events taking place in it with a far less active sense of agency. In America, talk about the world often centers around “what we should be doing” or “how America can influence” events. In these other countries, this sense of power and responsibility was notably absent. I was surprised, then, to notice similar senses of global involvement in the Russians I spoke to. While we might not agree on the solutions to many world problems, the Russians I spoke with tended to view the same global issues as legitimate foreign policy issues for Russia to consider, in a way I haven’t encountered anywhere else but in America (and, to some extent, Germany). Perhaps this is the Russian legacy as a great power speaking, but I genuinely think that by maintaining this outward focus, Russia guarantees herself a spot on the world stage as a player for some time to come.
With that being said, I also noticed that Russian worldviews can be breathtakingly different from those commonly held in America. Partly this is because they have had a vastly different historical experience in the world, and partly it is because of the influence of the state-directed narrative. Russia enjoyed very little dissent, whether in the press, on the streets, or in the minds of those I spoke to. The official narrative is often recognized by the people as such, but the lack of credible alternatives means that even if one rejects the state line on issues initially there is little other information which can substitute for it. The official narrative in Russia enjoys such depth, breadth, and volume that eventually parts of it seep into the realm of accepted fact, something I found troubling. Notably, nearly every Russian I asked agreed that Ukraine had always been a natural part of Russia, and that things in Ukraine when the territory was separated from Russia in the past had always been far worse than when Russia was in control. Perhaps these things are true – perhaps they aren’t – but the lack of any variation on the same theme from tens of educated Russians I spoke to was troubling.
directing Kaya Collaborative’s fellowship program for young Filipino diaspora leaders
With the help of the SSP summer grant, I spent three months in Manila, Philippines directing Kaya Collaborative’s fellowship program for young Filipino diaspora leaders, designed to introduce them to systemic change efforts and social entrepreneurship initiatives in Manila, while broadening their conception of a nation that, in a way, still serves as homeland for them. Our annual cohort of fellows is chosen mainly from Filipino communities at universities, from every region of the US and reaching into countries with large Filipino diaspora populations, including Canada, Australia, and hopefully Hong Kong. We look for critically-minded individuals who have a track record of leadership, harbor a meaningful commitment to their Filipino identity, and above all, cultivate a sense of empathy. The result is an intensive (albeit brief) deep-dive that catalyzes fellows as change agents to transform their respective Filipino communities who care into communities who care effectively.
“We couldn’t feel comfortable teaching something we at first didn’t even know ourselves.” – 2014 Kaya Co. Fellow
This work plays through many dimensions and intersections, involving immersion within the Philippines, while simultaneously thinking of how to bring the experience back to the fellows’ communities at home. Already, graduates of our first fellowship cohort have found themselves conducting research on Philippine social innovation, assembling workshops on identity politics, and holding discussions on disaster resilience. The avenues of engagement are endless and boundless, attributed to the individuals or communities who put their minds together.
There’s difficulty in finding common threads tied through the hard politics of properly equipping disaster-prone areas or seeing through K-12 education reform, with fuzzy concepts of ‘systems change’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’. At the outset, it has much less to do with being able to flowchart your way toward a concrete solution, for there may be none. Rather, it comes at a basic level from intentionality: developing awareness of a context, a problem, and imbuing the subsequent approach with the ideas, resources, and people who matter. Kaya Collaborative begins that process within our fellows, immersing them in diverse environments – from indigenous communities to government offices; from business executive meetings to coffee farms in the mountains – and afterward, finding the common threads that tie them all together, using a critical lens.
Not everyone has the opportunity to come to the Philippines on their own, nor does everyone want to. One question then becomes: ‘how do we affect hearts and minds from here?’ Once outside of the Philippine context, how do we inspire, educate, mobilize; how do we create a catalyst; transform a mind?
“People don’t realize they have a story to tell until you ask them.” – 2015 Kaya Co. Fellow
Experience tells that the easiest way to learn a language is to immerse ourselves in a community that speaks it; the easiest way to adapt to an environment is to live within it. If our work is to help others understand the Philippines, we should either bring them across the Pacific – or bring the Philippines a little closer to home. The country has 7,107 islands’ worth of stories, and that’s only scratching the surface. We’re sharing the narrative through stories never before shared, because they are new to the country itself. In such an untrodden environment, it’s easy for one to find their niche, in that way facilitating what may have previously seemed vast or unattainable into a personalized, understandable level.
One vastly important aspect is our work alongside Filipino changemakers, ensuring truly collaborative outcomes and products. There are a myriad of Filipinos for whom education means more than just graduating to find a well-paying job. The social entrepreneurship scene in the Philippines is burgeoning, replete with co-founders, ideators, and co-workers who are filled with initiative to create something of their own, and the energy to sustain their ideas. More than that, they realize their work is not only a means for subsistence, but meant for meaningful contributions to society. They wish to create a Philippines known for its educational innovation, for its leading agribusiness models, for its strength in governance. We wish them to succeed, and to make their work known.
“This country is changing because Filipinos decided to change it.” – Tony Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga
Kaya Collaborative’s partner ventures represent just a handful of the Philippines’ most dedicated changemakers, across a variety of fields and advocacies. We are proud and privileged to count ourselves among their friends and supporters. A few, even since a year ago, have grown by leaps and bounds:
Government in the Philippines has long been associated with corruption and stagnation; not just locally, but regionally and internationally as well. It takes immense courage to fight the tides of Filipinos who passively accept corruption as part of their life. Bantay.ph has done just that, starting at an attainable level: the citizen. Meaning ‘watch over’ in Filipino, Bantay recruited youth volunteers to visit local government offices while legally monitoring their practices, noting their procedures and collecting feedback from patrons. The data they’ve come up with has formed the basis of a crowdsourced tool for good governance, which includes compliance rates and transparency scores. This will provide a platform to directly address government units toward a collaborative forum where officials can adopt best practices and shed antiquated practices. In the meantime, with a grant from USAID, Bantay just finished their nationwide ‘Integrity School’, visiting high schools across the archipelago and conducting workshops where students adopt a very basic concept when it comes to government corruption: it doesn’t have to be this way.
In 1909, over a century ago, Filipino coffee beans were available in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a hub for international trade showcasing novelties from around the globe. After the first wave of mass-produced instant coffee (think Folgers), and a second wave of espresso-based individual drinks (think Starbucks), a third wave of specialty coffee has arisen, a ‘back to basics’ if you will, where people appreciate coffee for its intricacies and origin. Kalsada Coffee Roasters dedicated themselves to source Philippine coffee, working all the way through the value chain with farmers, producers, and roasters; their aim to once more bring Filipino coffee to the international scene. Beginning with intermittent contact to a group of farmers in the mountain province of Benguet, they have since consistently showed up, proving their commitment to the farming communities. This past season saw the resounding success of a crowdfunding campaign, which surpassed their financial goal to build a processing station for the farmers, who do most of their painstaking work by hand. Kalsada is currently expanding their partners to include coffee farmers in the southern island of Mindanao, and they have a team building foundations for international export, where their journey began – Seattle, Washington, USA.
‘Education is power’, some have said, but relatively recently some have begun to realize the importance of participatory learning. ‘Design thinking’, pushed forward by the likes of IDEO and Stanford’s d.school, has become a trend around the world, emphasizing empathy, ideation, and innovation. HABI Education Lab takes it another step by contextualizing design for a Filipino audience. Their team is made up of full-time educators, developers, and researchers, who all cultivate a mindset of openness, intentionality, and learning fast through failure. Starting from humble visiting workshops, they have expanded to fully-fledged ‘open labs’, which bring dozens of educators, youth, and those interested together for intensive orientation and design thinking sessions. HABI’s work has touched many individuals and inspired even more collaborators, who just can’t go back after their thoughts have been shown the way out of the box.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to truly call someplace home... what do you do after you discover your home?” – 2015 Kaya Co. Fellow
My stays in the Philippines have awakened a passion, not only for our work with Philippine changemakers, but for the powerful experience of community immersion. They have solidified in me a desire for international travel and service. In Manila, I’m at home – I know my way around the city at 3:00a, five places to order quality specialty coffee, at least three families whose door I could knock on to spend the night. Every time I’m in country, I have dozens of people to meet with, and countless more to meet for the first time. In my not-so-distant career I hope to replicate this experience and find the places and people that are home to me. As for the search, it becomes easier once you follow your passion and allow yourself to fall in the way of opportunity
working at U.S. southern Command and africom
My summer experience has been eclectic and varied, to say the least. It began in Miami, FL at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) working in the G-2 doing intelligence analysis and preparing presentations for different exercises taking place in the Southern Cone. While at SOUTHCOM, I also had the chance to brief on a daily basis, which was a great experience. After working at SOUTHCOM I was supposed to go and work at U.S. AFRICOM (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart, Germany in the J1 doing some work on plans and re-structuring. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, my orders were cancelled so I quickly had to find an alternative to fill my summer.
Prior to beginning the Security Studies Program at Georgetown, I had worked as a realtor in San Francisco. I still have my license so I quickly called an old friend who manages a large real estate firm in the city and asked if he needed some help over the summer. Luckily, he was in need of assistance so I worked for him for six weeks as a realtor. During that time I helped him refine his marketing strategy, and even managed to sell a home in the city.
Around mid-July, low and behold, I received a call from AFRICOM saying that funding had been allocated, and if I was still interested in working in the J1 for the remainder of the summer. Naturally, I agreed, and this is where I am currently working.
What is the best day you had on your trip?
Every year AFRICOM hosts their own Olympics. During this occasion the different directorates that make up the command (J1, J2, J3, etc.) form teams to compete in different sporting events that are put on by the command. Members of the command are free to pick the events that they wish to participate in, and in my case I partook in the 400m relay, and the AFRICOM Special Operations Mystery Event. The mystery event was organized and carried out by members of the Special Operations Command, and was a grueling obstacle course that included a hatchet throw, spear thrust, and weapons qualification with an AK-47. Not only was this experience amazing, I was able to compete on a team that included two airmen, and a coast guardsman; definitely one of the benefits of serving at a joint command is being able to serve and learn from the other services.
How does your internship sponsor or agency contribute to the mission of national security?
U.S. AFRICOM provides a crucial role in supporting U.S. national security strategic policies for the entire continent of Africa. Part of the operational and tactical roles of AFRICOM personnel are to engage with regional partners and conduct joint training and readiness exercises. By doing this, the U.S. hopes to strengthen African partner nations’ capability to mitigate internal and external threats on their own, thereby increasing overall security in the region.
Tell us about your favorite meal. What is it?
My favorite food in Germany has to be the Wiener Schnitzel. It consists of a thinly breaded cutlet that is made from veal. Here in Stuttgart it is often served with Swabian potatoes; a type of potato salad that is served warm and has been previously marinated in broth. The black forest cake they serve here is also legendary.
Studying French in SwitzerlAND
This summer, I had the opportunity to improve my French language skills at Lausanne, Switzerland. With the support of SSP summer funding, I enrolled at University of Lausanne Cours De Vacances, which offered full-immersion grammar, verbal, and written classes. My language skills have improved significantly since my first day of classes and living in student housing allowed me to be immersed in French every day. During the weekends, I was able to explore Switzerland and visit Paris, Avignon, Gordes, and Marseilles.
I decided to study French at University of Lausanne because the program had a holistic approach to language acquisition and advancement. Being immersed in the French language has helped me in drafting U.S.-France international agreements at work, and analyzing primary sources published by the French government and think tanks. Academically, I would like to use my French language skills to broaden the scope of my thesis next semester. It would be great to analyze French, Korean, and American news articles to understand how intelligence agencies leveraged the negotiators’ uncertainty and mediated security negotiations, respectively, in France, South Korea, and the U.S. This would be a great academic challenge and professional development opportunity for two reasons. First, this would be the first time that I’ve conducted academic research using my French language skills. Second, I would be able to bring in international perspectives regarding global security and intelligence issues, rather than focusing solely on U.S. national security issues. My thesis would serve as a foundation for my career interest in international security cooperation.
Whenever I had time outside of my language studies, I explored Switzerland to learn more about the complexities of the Swiss culture. I realized that the image of Switzerland abroad—of purity, punctuality, precision—is entirely different from the reality within its borders. I began to see that Switzerland is a far more complex country than first meets the eye. It's a country that takes a long time to get to know, and it's a country that takes even longer to get to know you, the stranger. It's not a place to expect instant bonding and bear hugs. Without French, German or Italian language skills, Switzerland is very difficult to settle down in, especially as the Swiss government is increasingly denying foreigners’ visas. Many Swiss women have revealed the difficulties of maintaining a job after giving birth to their children, because Swiss companies are not legally obligated to uphold anti-discriminatory policies as American companies do. I was surprised to find that many of the locals were unaware of the Swiss government’s stance on maintaining and improving national security. Many have stated that it is mostly due to the lack of transparency, which then contributes to the locals’ lack of awareness and interest. It was interesting to see that there are significant cultural differences among the German-speaking cantons, in the north, east, and center of the country, and the French- and Italian-speaking cantons in the east and the south respectively. Apart from the obvious linguistic differences, each region’s economy, cuisine, political preferences, climate, and education system were very unique. Switzerland is a place filled with cultural, historical, and linguistic complexities and one can only learn about its realities by living and exploring this country. It has been invaluable to have had the chance to advance my understanding of the French language, the Swiss people, and the complexities of the Swiss culture and history.
studying Turkish in Istanbul for five weeks
The funding provided by the SSP language grant allowed me to study Turkish in Istanbul for five weeks. My time in Istanbul was absolutely amazing and it was a great opportunity to really improve my Turkish. The program I chose consisted of a family homestay and 20 hours of language study during the week. Although I had studied Turkish for several months prior to my arrival, there were undoubtedly some funny moments when things got lost in translation at my homestay or in the street with native Turks. Istanbul’s history, location, and culture make it one of the most interesting cities in the world and after my five weeks of study I think my list of things to do and try there is actually longer than before I arrived.
While I certainly enjoyed the classroom study and famous sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the best moments of my trip were those spent with native Turks I met. Turkish hospitality is hard to explain without experiencing it. I made more than a dozen friends that I would gladly host at my house in D.C. It was my time spent with these friends—eating, drinking, and chatting in Turkish—that was the most rewarding part of my trip.
Did anything surprise you? What?
One of the more surprising aspects of Istanbul is how incredibly diverse the city is. There are people from every country and nationality living in Istanbul. Even for native Turks it was hard for them to know if a person was Turkish or not. I remember walking into a store with my Turkish friend and because we were speaking in a mix of English and Turkish the worker was curious as to where we were from. When my friend told him he was from Turkey the guy did not believe him and repeatedly questioned him to make sure. Although diversity exists in every large city, Istanbul seems to be unique because the cultures and people are so deeply intertwined and interact at such a local level.
What was the best day you had on your trip?
The best day of my trip was definitely an evening out with a few students in my Turkish class and a group of native Turks. It included a 2.5 hour meal with more food than I can explain in a blog. We had mezzes, 4 or 5 main dishes that we shared, and several desserts. The restaurant overlooked the Bosporus and we sat on the rooftop so it was an amazing atmosphere. After dinner we headed out to a local place for some Raki and continued talking about Turkey, politics, sports, and who deserves the title of the best soccer team in Istanbul (a very touchy subject). Although this was probably the best day of my trip, it was the times spent with my Turkish friends that offered the most rewarding and interesting parts of my trip.
Tell us about your favorite meal. What is it?
My favorite food to eat was for breakfast in Istanbul. It is called Menemen and is comprised of eggs, onion, tomato, green pepper, and spices. As with almost every meal, Turkish tea and bread are included—tea is drank all throughout the day and is much more common than coffee in Turkey. Although I am not exactly sure how Menemen is prepared, it is served very hot and is extremely delicious.
Learning Spanish in Colombia
This summer I have been advancing my Spanish language skills and conducting research for my thesis in Colombia. My language skills have improved significantly since I first arrived as I have taken classes regularly at a school as well as with a private tutor, and have been immersed in Spanish in my daily life here. I have mostly stayed in Bogota, but have had the opportunity to travel around the country a bit for long weekends with host national friends as well as with family and friends who have visited me from the States.
Professionally, I have also been able to connect with the Center for Investigation at the Postgraduate University of the National Colombian Police Forces. They were very interested and excited to assist me with my research, which I am focusing on the past, present and future prospects for the Colombian Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) processes of ex-combatants (guerillas and paramilitaries). The university has assisted me in acquiring contacts, articles, information and other resources. Once I complete my thesis, I have agreed to translate it into Spanish for joint publication with the police university here. I was also asked by the university to participate as a keynote speaker for an event focusing on international perspectives and experiences with governance and public security, alongside two other academic professionals from Colombia and Brasil. I discussed the use of force continuum of the United States police force, within the framework of recent news stories regarding race, racism and human rights. This was a phenomenal professional development opportunity and challenge for me for two reasons. First, it was the first time I have ever actually spoken about security issues within the United States, as my focus has always been on international issues, in other countries. Secondly, I conducted the presentation entirely in Spanish, to include a 15-20 minute question and answer period following the presentations.
Outside of my language studies and research I have enjoyed my time getting to know the real Colombia, the Colombia many people do not see in the news. Although Colombia has technically experienced civil war for the last 50 years, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, Colombia is actually the second happiest country in the world. This has been readily apparent throughout my stay here. Colombians are some of the most amicable, resilient, and relaxed but also determined people I have ever encountered. I have always felt more than welcome here and have rarely, if ever, felt insecure. This is not to say that my stay has been entirely uneventful. In fact, on July 3rd, the FARC (or allegedly the ELN) detonated two bombs in Bogota, Colombia. One downtown, another in the busy financial district in the northern part of the city, roughly 5 blocks from my apartment. Fortunately, no one was killed and only a few minor injuries were sustained as bomb threats had been called in prior to detonation, allowing civilians to be evacuated. This is the side of Colombia the world still sees. Although this incident took place near where I have been living here, this is not the Colombia I have come to know and love. And this is no longer their story. The FARC now number 6,000 or less and even the most cynical of Colombians believe that this round of peace talks will finally help close the dark chapters of their history, once and for all. Thanks to more recent, harsher policies and robust police and military action taken against militia groups as well as a significant aid package called Plan Colombia from the US, Colombia is safer, more stable, and more developed that it has possibly ever been. What would really help Colombia now is for the international community to shed their past, negative perceptions about the country and assist in boosting investment and tourism. Colombia has a lot to offer: delicious, traditional foods, impressive and incredibly diverse flora and fauna, abundant resources, and so much more.
I have learned much more about the realities on the ground here in Colombia by being here. Reading academic articles and news stories only tell a small percentage of the real story, and it has been invaluable to me to have the opportunity to understand the conflict, the people, the government and its development on the level I do now
Studying hindi in new delhi
I’ve spent most of this month in New Delhi, India and I will be returning home to DC next week. I chose to travel to India so that I could study Hindi, with secondary objectives to observe conditions within the country and attend foreign policy events. As I researched options for intensive Hindi immersion, I concluded that organized immersion programs entail considerable unnecessary cost. I participated in two such programs previously, studying Mandarin in Tianjin through my undergraduate university and then Mandarin in Suzhou through the State Department CLS program. I would suggest that any student interested in studying a language consider creating a personal immersion program. This does remove the emotional and emergency safety net of a formal program, but is significantly less expensive and results in a more truly immersive experience. My personal program has included personal tutoring at HindiGuru Language Institute for 4 hours a day. I live at a homestay residence I found on Airbnb, where I try to speak with the maid/cook who doesn’t know English. My schedule has also left me time to attend events at Delhi’s foreign policy think tanks.
Why I chose this travel experience
I know that many students arrive in the SSP program with a firm idea of where they are going after graduation. Some, like me, have much more tenuous plans. My first year in the SSP program developed my interest in security policy-making and sharpened my geographic focus on South and Southeast Asia. I am especially, and unsurprisingly, interested in India because of its sheer population mass, economic development, nuclear weapons, and relations with Russia, China, and Afghanistan. Simply put, what India does matters. Having studied India from various angles over the past several years, I wanted to see what security felt like in India and find out how they talk about it.
How this will help in the job search
40 hours of intensive in-class language study has helped me cover a lot of linguistic ground. It has given me the resources and the interest to continue developing my Hindi skills at home. Language ability is a marketable skill in international security fields, and so I am confident that this will help my future job prospects. My experience applying for, receiving, and being turned down for jobs up to this point has taught me that many employers are also interested in cultural awareness. I am interested in starting my career as an intelligence analyst and my analysis of events in India can only be as good as my comprehension of the cultural context in which those events occur. On a more unexpected note, I have learned the value of leveraging ‘Georgetown.’ I wanted to attend an address by US Ambassador Rahul Verma at the Observer Research Foundation here in Delhi, but it was listed as a “By invitation only” event. I contacted the foundation to see if I could talk them into extending me an invitation and represented myself as a graduate student at Georgetown University. The research fellow who replied to me introduced herself as a graduate of the Georgetown Leadership Summit and graciously provided me with the invitation to attend.
Lessons I’ve learned
I’ve learned that SSP is always comfortingly near, no matter how far I travel. The first event I attended in Delhi was a presentation about the development of China’s military by Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro. I have also learned more about how much language reflects culture. I feel like Hindi’s gender conjugations reflect gender relations within the culture. I have also noticed how some words or even sounds are associated with Islam, Pakistan, or the Arabic world. As language reflects culture, culture also illuminates security issues. I attended the cinema to watch a bollywood film. One of the previews was for the upcoming film Phantom: “The Story You Wish Were True.” This mainstream media production featuring huge bollywood stars is a fictionalized story of Indian counter-terrorist agents entering Pakistan and killing ‘Haris Saeed’, a character very transparently modeled on Hafiz Saeed who was mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. The film has been preemptively banned in Pakistan due to complaints by Hafiz Saeed. In this manner, a nation’s culture both reflects and directs its security concerns.
My Moroccan Summer
Thanks to funding provided by the SSP summer grant, I was able to travel to Meknes, Morocco for an 8-week intensive Arabic program. Of all the Arabic programs globally, this program stood out to me because the students were urged to live with Moroccan host families, and the program provided several opportunities for students to learn and engage with local Moroccan culture. The program included 20-hours of weekly classroom instruction, combined with activities and a native language partner with whom to practice speaking. Prior to traveling to Morocco, I had never taken an Arabic course, although I picked up some conversational Arabic in my eight years living in the Arabian Gulf. However, I was fortunate and was paired with a host family that spoke English. The family made it a priority to not let me add in English words when I didn’t know what I wanted to say-- which really challenged me to take all the new vocabulary and grammar I’d learned in class and apply it in my daily speech. They loved to shout out “Arabiya faqad!” or “Arabic only!” whenever they heard me speaking English.
One of the most exciting things about living in Morocco was traveling within the country during the weekends. I traveled to Merzouga in the Sahara, Tangiers in the North and to coastal cities within. I benefitted greatly both in practicing my Arabic and in discovering the vast amounts of Islamic and Roman history in the country, making my experience all the more valuable.
Why did you choose this particular country?
Initially, I chose Morocco because of the programs structure, but increasingly, I was excited to travel to Morocco because I had never been to North Africa and had always been interested in its culture and history. Because of North Africa’s strategic importance to almost every European empire, as well as the Islamic Caliphate and succeeding empires, I learned from remnants of traditions and structural ruins that told the stories of Morocco’s past. I visited Volubilis, an excavated Roman city that had been built in the Southwestern border of the Empire, between Meknes and Fez. It was there I saw beautiful mosaics of Hercules and Athena, intricate aqueducts and ancient heating and cooling systems. I was most stricken by their vomitoriums—where decadent Romans would use a feather to empty their stomachs to continue eating. I traveled to Moulay Idriss, the city where Islam was first introduced to Morocco. In my own town of Meknes, I often walked past Bab al-Mansour, a large entryway to the palace built in 1732 by Moulay Ismail. It seemed that everywhere I went in Morocco there was a history lesson to be learned.
What is the best day you had on your trip?
The best day, (days, actually) I had in Morocco was the weekend we spent in Merzouga, a city in Southeastern Morocco, in the Sahara. We set up a desert tour with a local hotel owned by members of a Berber tribe (an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa). Once we arrived we set off on camelback into the Sahara. This was my first time riding a camel, and riding for an hour and a half was not easy. My camel was a little wayward and kept trying to get off course, but I willed it to stay on track—and he did. Kind of. After our arrival to the camp, we drank delicious mint tea and explored the cavernous sand dunes. Our Berber guides showed us how to wrap scarves over our heads and necks to protect us from the harsh desert sun. These covers came in handy when a sneak sandstorm emerged and we all lifted our scarves to protect our faces. The desert was beautiful during the day, but came alive at night. The sky was illuminated with stars so clear I could distinguish many constellations. In fact, I saw two shooting stars! We sat around a huge fire and listened to our Berber guides sing traditional songs and tell Berber tales. The camp was set up such that we slept under the stars, an experience I will never forget. The next morning we woke just before dawn to drink tea and watch the sun rise.
Show us a picture of your favorite meal. What is it?
One of my host mother’s favorite words was “kooly!” or “eat!”, so I was constantly eating delicious Moroccan meals. However, my favorite meal was definitely couscous. Couscous is a traditional meal of semolina or wheat granules cooked by steam. Every Friday, my Moroccan family would sit together and eat couscous for lunch after the Dhuhr or afternoon prayer. The couscous would be served in one large plate, where all the family would gather and eat. Couscous was typically served with chicken and my host mother would add pumpkin, zucchini, carrots and a variety of other vegetables. The preparation of couscous is complex, so my host mother would begin the process before I left for classes early Friday morning, and when I returned it would be ready. “Couscous Fridays” quickly became my favorite day of the week in Morocco.
Studying Russian in Daugavpils, Latvia
With the funding provided by the SSP summer grant, from mid-May to mid-July, I and another classmate from SSP attended LatInSoft’s 8-week “Learn Russian in the European Union” program in Daugavpils, Latvia. Despite not being located within Russia itself, Daugavpils is considered one of the “most Russian” cities in the EU with over 50,000 ethnic Russians. I found this program appealing because it allowed me to live in a community of Russians outside of their “home” country; I hoped that it would help me better understand the mindset of Russians in Ukraine who feel at odds with the Ukrainian government. However, my main goal was to continue improving my Russian language skills. The program involved an average of 20 hours of classroom instruction each week. In addition, we lived with a local, Russian-speaking host family, which greatly benefited our conversational skills and understanding of Russian and Latvian culture. Because only the family’s daughter spoke any English at all, I had to speak Russian just to get through the day, each and every day. The host family was extremely hospitable and very generous in overlooking my speaking mistakes early on, helping me find the right words or phrases when they could. In addition, because the family had a car, they frequently took us on excursions all across Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. I saw the European mix of “Old City” and “New City,” I walked through ancient castles, read Russian inscriptions on World War I memorials, and saw 700 year old buildings next to Starbucks. US history is usually only taught going back a few hundred years, so to walk across the drawbridge of a castle that was over 500 years old when the Declaration of Independence was drafted was an amazing experience for me. Beyond simply strengthening my Russian language skills, living in Latvia for two months deepened my understanding of the Baltic states, changed the way I view the career I want, and expanded my view of the world I live in.
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
During the Cold War, Russian was unequivocally considered the most important language for US national security and defense, and federal funds poured into university language programs accordingly. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Russia was viewed as less threatening, and so the language was also viewed as less and less important for national security. Students and professionals began to focus on other regions and languages. Unfortunately, the current unrest in Ukraine has shown Russia to still be a very real threat to US interests abroad; however, today there are not enough young American experts on Russia, its language, or its culture to replace those retiring who studied Russia in the Soviet Union.
Having studied Russian in an overseas immersion program, I will be able to stand out in an already small pool of qualified applicants when applying for government intelligence positions. Having the language skills helps me to not only read newspapers or listen to the news, but also understand the way Russian speakers think. For instance, when Russian speakers want to say “I have a car,” they do not use the verb for ownership like in English, but instead say, “A car is near me.” It’s an entirely different way of thinking about personal property and ownership, and without an intimate knowledge of the language, it would be difficult if not impossible to recognize these potentially incredibly important differences in thinking. Because I will be better equipped to understand how Russian speakers think, my analysis will be more nuanced and detailed.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
Undoubtedly, the biggest lesson I learned was that knowing a foreign language is so much more than simply a resume builder. A new language opens up a whole new world of thought, literature, and people. At times while I was in Latvia, I found myself more motivated to study Russian not because it would help me get the job I wanted, but because I wanted to speak with the people around me and know what they thought about philosophy, politics, or even just daily life. Everyone I talked to seemed to have a totally new perspective on the same world I thought I knew so well. And I found this to be a much stronger motivator than simply trying to boost my career. The experience taught me that language is not so much a tool to be trained in as it is a tradition that connects people across great distances and the passage of time.
How have you changed after this experience?
Even now, three weeks after returning to the US, I am still discovering how I’ve changed after living in Latvia, despite staying there only a short time. Perhaps the most easily recognizable change has been in my language skills. Before I left, I had only taken one intensive introductory Russian course at Georgetown. I could stumble through a few basic phrases and understand at about the same level. In contrast, by the last week of classes I was able to debate details of the US-Iran agreement on Iran’s nuclear program with my classmate and teacher with only a few mistakes and pauses to look in the dictionary.
On a related but deeper level, living in an environment where almost no one understood my native language helped me to better understand how many Russian speakers might feel in countries that discourage the use of Russian. Assimilation would be a painful and difficult process because it is hard to leave behind the things that remind you of home. Learning a new language is a slow process, and I found myself humbled on many occasions early on when encountering difficulty forming even simple sentences like asking for water. Now, however, not only am I more confident in my Russian, but also in my ability to speak in front of crowds or introduce myself to strangers, in English or in Russian. Being among people so different from myself not only helped me to better understand their values, beliefs, and views, but my own as well. This experience not only improved me professionally, but also changed me for the better personally.
These blog posts are written by different students who received the Security Studies Program (SSP) summer grant. Each student shares their own unique experience.