Haddonfield Memorial High School rising junior Henry Cowan spent seven weeks of his summer living with a host family in Kyrgyzstan to learn Russian as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship.
Though he has no personal connection to the language and did not know it prior to studying, Cowan chose to learn Russian because he felt it would be useful given his plans to study business or international relations.
“I was really interested in improving my language skills in Russian, which I had never learned before, and I really wanted to challenge myself and get out my comfort zone by experiencing a new culture,” he explained.
Cowan was one of 442 students selected from thousands of applicants to receive the scholarship and study of Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russan and Turkish. Cowan noted that the purpose of the scholarship is to ensure American high-schoolers learn critical languages that many people don’t know.
“I thought Russian would be the one I would be able to use most in my professional career and in the future,” he said.
The seven-week program ran from June 23 to Aug. 11, and during that time, Cowan had both language and regular classes every day between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. He was then able to take a cultural excursion and spent free time exploring Kyrgyzstan on the weekends. His host family and one other student did not speak English, so he was truly able to immerse himself in the culture.
“I would say the biggest difference between the cultures was the kinds of food that we ate. It’s very much home-cooked meals,” Cowan recalled, in particular a dumpling dish with vegetables and rice and meat.
His favorite excursion was a three-day trip after midterms to Issyk-Pul, where he stayed in a complex he described as a circular nomadic dwelling with a peak on top. During that time, Cowan learned more about the Kyrgyze culture and the myths and legends surrounding its lakes.
“We went into the mountains and slept in these tents under the beautiful, beautiful night sky, because there’s absolutely no light pollution there,” he remembered. “And we just really experienced the Kyrgyze wilderness … “
The seven-week trip encouraged Cowan to be more independent and deepened his interest in learning the Russian language.
“I would say I have a much more open mindset to different cultures,” he maintained. “Living with the host family really made it so I had a better understanding of the culture, how their meal times were structured, how things were different from us, but not necessarily worse or better.”
Cowan encourages high-school students to apply to the program. To learn more about the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, visit https://exchanges.state.gov/us/program/nsliy.