Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School freshman Willa Vigneault missed the last two weeks of school, but with good reason. The 15-year-old student left the Island on Monday, June 16, to travel to Amman, Jordan, where she will study Arabic for the summer on a United States Department of State National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Scholarship.
The daughter of Sarah Vail and David Vigneault of West Tisbury, Willa is one of only 625 students selected nationwide to study less commonly-taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs. She is one of 20 students and two supervisors in the Jordan program. She is living with a local host family during the 45-day program, until she returns home early in August.
“I have studied French for three years,” Willa wrote recently in an email to The Times. “I am interested in Arabic because my father is part Lebanese and because I’m interested in foreign relations and hope to do something with that in my career.
“The U.S. needs better relations with Arab-speaking countries. I thought it would be a good place to start. There is a lot of conflict in the Middle East.”
Willa has a longer-range goal of learning many languages, and she is interested in studying engineering and foreign relations and international politics in college. “Engineering may be a way to make life easier in developing countries,” she said.
Willa said she is excited to meet the other students as well as live and learn in Jordan. All 20 students in the Jordan program are United States citizens, Willa said, and some have multiple citizenships. “I’ve counted eight languages in total that we can speak,” she said. “Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Croatian, and of course, English.” They will be adding Arabic to the list.
The group has taken several tours to see various parts of Jordan. “I was amazed with how many people can speak English,” Willa said, “and how willing everyone is to help us learn their language and culture and to ask us about ours.”
Her host family has two children. “Zaina, my 11-year-old host sister, has lent me her room during my stay. It has a great view and it’s pink and covered with flowers and a Barbie bedspread,” she wrote on a blog she is keeping, ”My host mother and sister speak almost no English, and we are relying quite heavily on charades and Google Translate to communicate. They tried to teach me an Arabic card game and I won even though they gave the directions in Arabic and I had no idea what they said.”
Willa’s father, director of the Dukes County Housing Authority, said he and Willa’s mother have concerns about their daughter traveling to a part of the world where safety can be a concern, but the fact that the state department is overseeing the trip allayed their fears.
“It’s her world, an international world that our children are growing up in,” Mr. Vigneault said. “The decision to support her educational travel was easily made. We felt comfortable that the program is being run by the State Department rather than a private group.”
A friend’s daughter was involved in the same program in the Middle East a few years ago, and the State Department made a last-minute change in her destination due to security concerns. “That made us comfortable thinking that they are actively on top of it,” he said.
The NSLI-Y program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students to learn less commonly-taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs, according to a press release. The program gives students the chance to study Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian, or Turkish overseas.
Launched in 2006, the program seeks to increase the number of Americans who can engage with native speakers of critical languages by providing formal instruction and informal language practice in an immersion environment. The goals of the NSLI-Y program include sparking a life-long interest in foreign languages and cultures, and developing a corps of young Americans with the skills necessary to advance international dialogue and cross-cultural opportunities in the private, academic, and government sectors.
Applications for 2015-2016 NSLI-Y programs will be available at www.nsliforyouth.org in the early fall. For information about U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange programs, visit exchanges.state.gov.