Cultural Ambassadors: Students Travel Abroad on National Fellowships in Record Numbers


Melanie Meinzer was hungry. She stood at the deli counter in the grocery store, surveying the case bursting with the scents and colors of the many meats and cheeses. All she wanted was some sliced turkey. She thought hard, searching for the word, but she didn’t know it.

So she did the next best thing.

“Bird,” she said hopefully, in Arabic, to the bemused woman behind the counter. No response.

“Big…bird,” she tried again in the foreign tongue, now puffing her chest slightly and flapping her arms, like wings.

Another woman appeared, and the two conferred, smiling, with eyebrows raised. A few hand gestures and attempted French words later, it clicked: oh, turkey, said the dark-haired woman, and Meinzer nodded in relief. She left the shop, sliced turkey in tow, navigating the streets of Meknes on her way home to make dinner.

Eight weeks spent in Morocco on a Critical Language Scholarship was just one of many immersive experiences abroad for Meinzer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science whose focus is international relations. She’s one of the rapidly growing numbers of UConn students not only studying and doing research abroad, but also winning competitive national and federal support to do it. Their travels take them out of their comfort zones – and into the ranks of cultural ambassadors.

Since 2002, more than 60 UConn students have earned national scholarships and fellowships to study abroad. Since 2013 alone, there have been 30 winners, almost triple the amount in the decade before. In many cases, only 15 percent of applicants across the U.S. receive awards.

“Our students are realizing they have what it takes to play in this sandbox,” says LuAnn Saunders-Kanabay, Assistant Director of the Office of National Scholarships. “They’re realizing just how competitive they are.”

Melanie Meinzer

Melanie Meinzer, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science and recipient of both a Critical Language Scholarship and Boren Fellowship. (UConn Photo/Christine Buckley)

This year, a record eight UConn students won Fulbright awards to study in Bulgaria, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Nepal, Northern Ireland, Norway, and South Africa. In the spring of 2015, Emily Eaton ’15 (CLAS), a human rights and human development and family studies major, studied in South Africa, and rising senior Michael Nocera ’16 (CLAS), a biology major, studied in Australia – both on Gilman Scholarships, which aim to send U.S. undergraduates with financial need abroad.

Even learning Norwegian by living and working for two years in Norway after college didn’t prepare Meinzer for the shock of immersion into the Arab world. In Europe, she says, so many people speak English that there’s far less pressure compared with parts of the Middle East and North Africa. These “critical” languages, so titled by the U.S. Department of State, refer to languages that are underrepresented by U.S. language professionals, often because they are so radically different from English.

“You have a lot of these awkward exchanges, and sometimes it’s funny,” she says. “It really forces you to buckle down and learn that language.”

Henry Wolf VII, a graduate student in psychology, was drawn to UConn to study language with Jay Rueckl, associate professor of psychology and director of the new Brain Imaging Research Center. He received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Mandarin in Suzhou, China in the summer of 2015. He describes the daily four hours of classwork and one hour of tutoring as “brilliant.”

More than learning to speak with fluency, Wolf was motivated to learn other languages for use in his dissertation work. He studies language acquisition, the process by which children learn to speak, and he hopes to use Mandarin in his research.

“Language acquisition is, perhaps, one of the greatest traits humans evolved,” he says. “It can give us a window into the nature of intelligence.”

Meinzer was motivated to learn Arabic to further her interest in Middle East policy and issues of exclusion. This month, she traveled to the West Bank, where she will spend the 2015-16 academic year studying under a Boren Fellowship, awarded through the federal National Security Education Program to further education in languages underrepresented in the U.S.

She’ll be studying the impact of foreign aid on the Palestinian educational system. Scholars argue that education produced out of this aid is highly sterilized: that it normalizes the conflict, stifles the Palestinian identity and discourages Palestinians from being involved in public policy. All these effects are counterintuitive to peace, says Meinzer.

“Reading all the articles in the Journal of Palestine Studies still won’t help me understand what it’s actually like to be educated under occupation,” she says. “To really understand something, there’s no substitute for being there.”

Wolf’s dissertation work will make use of UConn’s new fMRI machine. The machine allows researchers to see which areas of the brain activate during specific tasks, like speaking a second language.

“I am most interested in understanding how the human brain processes language and developing computer simulations of those processes,” he says. He hopes to continue in language research after graduate school, perhaps going abroad to China.

After she completes her Ph.D., Meinzer will work for at least a year for the Federal government, part of the agreement for the Boren fellowship. She’s interested in serving as a refugee officer with the Department of Homeland Security, or a grants officer with the Department of State. Beyond her fellowships’ benefits to the federal government, she thinks it also plays a big role in chipping away at cultural problems, like inequality and discrimination issues in the U.S.

“When you have students going to more places, they can come back and help to break the mold of the Western culture we see all the time,” she says. “If you can relate to people in far-off places, you can bring that knowledge back and use it to defend against people with ill-informed ideas.”

By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

This story appears in the summer 2015 issue of CLAS Alumni News.

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