As I stepped out of the car to begin my Pre-Departure Orientation, I was struck with a stifling wave of elation. Although it may have been the humidity of Washington D.C. that caused this momentary fervor, I know that my proliferating excitement was a result of months of anticipation. I dragged my bursting suitcase to the lobby of the hotel, kissed my parents goodbye, and stepped into a conference room filled with students. It was easy to tell that these students had also been struck with this same wave of elation, as the conference room seemed to be transformed into a commotion of intellectual conversations and a frenzy of giggles. Peers from all over the country: Florida, Wisconsin, Boston, Alaska, Michigan, and Hawaii were all gathered together in one conference room, under one program, with one goal -- to learn a new language.
The reason for my travel to Washington D.C. (as well as my overwhelming animation) is because I was accepted to participate in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth sponsored by the United States Department of State. I, along with 15 other students, was selected to study Turkish and travel to Bursa, Turkey; a nation of increasing importance in the global economy and a recent political hotspot. The NSLI-Y Program was established in 2006 to promote the study of various strategic languages not often taught in schools. The program provides a full scholarship for each student studying abroad, and even provides a stipend for each student to purchase necessities in their country. This is not a vacation, and the staff members will not let me or my classmates forget this. We are selected from a rigorous application process that includes a written application with several essays, followed by an interview with a member of American Councils. This is a language intensive program, with a total of 120 hours in a classroom over a span of six weeks, which allows for a happy medium between studying the language and immersion in the culture.
The orientation process is a two-day seminar consisting of important discussions about the goals of the program as well as a setting guideline for keeping the students safe. The program directors conduct the orientation, which includes information about the Code of Conduct, language learning tips, and an introduction to the culture. We ended the orientation by having a quick lesson on basic vocabulary in our target language, which was very nerve-racking for some students.
So now that you know about the program, I want to share an impactful anecdote that I found enlightening, even if it was kind of laughable. A woman from the Department of State came in today to speak on the topic of setting realistic goals and understanding how to achieve them. She started her presentation by asking us to turn to the person sitting beside of us and begin thumb wrestling. It was an odd request, but I assumed that it was merely another icebreaker meant to get to know one another better. The object of the game, however, was for each person to get as many points as possible. Not thinking anything of these new directions, I stuck to what I knew, and competed with my partner to win points. When time was called, I had 3 and my rival had 1. The scores throughout the room were very similar, with not many points being scored. The woman then went on to explain that when she had explained the directions to previous groups, there were several students who had 30 or even 40 points. How could this be? The directions that were given were to get as many points as possible, meaning the previous groups did not compete, but rather cooperate. My classmates and I were so deeply fixed in the American ideal of competition that we ignored the rules and focused on our own personal gain. The State Department woman began to explain that the reason behind this exercise was to try to get the students to comprehend that the language learning experience should be a cooperative one. Rather than riddling the program with the excessive competition that plagues our United States school system, she stressed that we must work together to accomplish our goals. She encouraged us to have study groups, speak to Turks often, and speak in Turkish amongst ourselves.
As I prepare for my flight to Istanbul later today, I hope to preserve the wave of excitement that has so graciously befallen me. I will keep the lessons I learned during orientation in mind, and try to fight my American competitive instinct. After all, there is only one common goal for all NSLI-Y students.