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6 ASU students receive Department of State’s Critical Languages Scholarship

Headshot of Cassiday Durland in an outdoor setting.

Cassiday Durland, a history major with a minor in Russian, will study the Russian language for eight weeks at the American Councils for International Education in Tbilisi, Georgia.

May 08, 2023

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has announced that an ASU-record six students have been named recipients of the Critical Language Scholarship, a federal program that promotes rapid language gains and essential intercultural fluency in regions that are critical to U.S. national security and economic prosperity.

“CLS is a highly competitive award,” said Laurie Stoff, assistant director of the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement. “It has a national acceptance rate of less than 10%, so it is very impressive that ASU received six of those awards — meaning the acceptance rate for ASU was close to 14%.”

The Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS) is part of a wider government initiative to expand the number of U.S. citizens who are proficient in foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity. Recipients of the CLS spend eight to ten weeks abroad studying one of 14 critical languages. The program includes intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains. Just over 400 scholarships were awarded in the 2023 cycle, to students from 245 U.S. colleges and universities in all 50 states. More than 5,000 students applied for awards in the 2023 cycle.

“This year, CLS was prioritizing students from underrepresented categories and those from minority-serving institutions, community colleges and those with military service backgrounds, and our pool of applicants reflected that diversity,” Stoff said. More than 40 ASU students submitted applications, most of whom received significant guidance and support from the scholarship office.

The 2023 ASU recipients of the CLS include Sinclair Bagwell (Chinese), Mary Carr (Chinese), Lakshmi Sawhney (Hindi), Chandler Camarena (Russian), Cassidy Durland (Russian) and Nathaniel Ross (Russian). In addition, two students — Katherine Howell (Chinese) and Isabella Valli-Doherty (Chinese) — were named alternates.

The recipients represent a wide range of backgrounds and interests. A history major with a minor in Russian, Durland will study for eight weeks at the American Councils for International Education in Tbilisi, Georgia. Durland said that her interest in studying Russian stems from her long-held passion for reading and history.

“I have loved learning about the past and thinking about how people used to live and what prompted major events,” she said. She began studying Russian at ASU’s Critical Languages Institute, and from there her interest in learning more grew. “Russian is truly a beautiful language, and I am eager to learn as much about it as possible.”

Durland plans to combine her interests by pursuing a graduate program in Russian history. She plans to use her time in Georgia to gather historical sources written in Russia. In the long term, she hopes the experience will help her gain translational skill and prepare for a life of traveling abroad.

Like Durland, computer science major Camarena also gained an interest in foreign languages while studying at ASU. As a cybersecurity specialist, Camarena decided that increased proficiency in Russian would be useful, given the number of hacking attempts that originate from Russian-speaking countries, and added a minor in Russian to his resume.

“I took the language as I thought it would be a good way to accelerate my career,” he said. He hopes to eventually work in the federal government as a cybersecurity expert. For his program, he will spend the bulk of his summer at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

For Sawhney, the motivation to apply for CLS was more personal. Her interest in studying Hindi stems from a desire to learn more about her own heritage and culture.

“I remember cooking with my Indian relatives while they traded stories in Hindi and blasted old Bollywood music on the radio,” she said. “To my ear, their stories accompanied by Bollywood melodies seemed like the most profound form of poetry, and I wanted to learn Hindi to better understand its beauty.”

Sawhney majors in both history and political science, along with minors in vocal performance and French. Given her long-term career plans to work internationally, she hopes that learning Hindi, spoken by more than 500 million people, will open many doors for her in the future. She will be traveling to the American Institute for Indian Studies in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, India.

Interest in CLS has been growing steadily among ASU students in recent years.

“This year saw an uptick in the number of applicants, from 36 last year to 43, a number that has been increasing each year since I have been the role of primary advisor for this scholarship,” Stoff said. “This change is reflective of the growing interest in foreign language proficiency, which students increasingly recognize as a path to professional opportunities in a variety of fields, as well as significant outreach and recruitment efforts by ONSA, particularly among underrepresented categories of students.”

Producing six recipients demonstrates an upward trend in success: In 2022, four ASU students were selected for the CLS program, while in 2021, only three were selected.

One significant challenge of applying to CLS is that the application window is relatively small. The application opens in early October with a mid-November deadline. Given the tight turnaround and high levels of interest, both applicants and advisors have to work intensely. The application for CLS can be challenging, as it asks students to articulate their meaningful experiences, career trajectory, cross-cultural competence and plans for continuing study after their programs.

“Our students worked very hard to hone their application materials,” Stoff said. “They all developed and revised numerous drafts of the four essay questions the application requires, and met with me on multiple occasions to receive constructive feedback intended to help them strengthen their answers.”

Notably, the cohort of ASU applicants for CLS collaborated to strengthen their applications.

“We also held a number of workshops wherein students engaged in peer review of their essays, which was very useful not only in allowing them to receive additional feedback, but also to see how other students were crafting their application materials," Stoff said.

Once submitted, the applications are reviewed by a national committee composed of language faculty, area specialists, study abroad professionals and fellowship advisors. During the first round of review, all applications are read by two outside reviewers. During the second round, top applications are submitted to selection panels.

Reviewers look specifically at a candidate’s commitment to learning in relation to the language and their goals as well as their preparation for the program and how they may contribute to the program overall.

Stoff drew on her previous experience as a member of the national selection committee to advise students on application strategies.

“The strongest applications are ones that clearly demonstrate the student’s ability to handle the rigors of an intensive, full-immersion program within the context of living in the unfamiliar surroundings of a foreign country, and who will contribute to the mission of mutual cultural understanding,” Stoff said. “They also indicate the importance of study of the student’s chosen language for their further academic and professional development and how their future goals contribute to U.S. and world interests, broadly conceived.”

The application for 2024 Critical Languages Scholarships will open in October. Current ASU students who wish to learn more about the CLS program should contact ONSA at to learn about upcoming application workshops.

Story submitted by the Office of National Scholarships Advisement

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