This summer, Lilly Bar ’23, Benjamin Cheng ’24 and Arivumani Srivastava ’26 made vast language gains as participants in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program.
The program is part of a U.S. government effort to increase the number of Americans studying one of 14 critical foreign languages that are “essential to America’s engagement with the world.” After a competitive application process, scholars spent eight to ten weeks abroad acquiring language and cultural skills in an immersive setting.
Lilly Bar ’23
Bar, a recent graduate with a degree in molecular biology, studied Arabic at the Arab American Language Institute in Meknes, Morocco, this summer.
Prior to the program, Bar had taken Arabic at Claremont McKenna College. The CLS program improved her Arabic dramatically, she says.
In addition to intensive daily language instruction, Bar lived with a host family and was also paired with a Moroccan language partner. The two of them spent time together each week, exploring Meknes and speaking Arabic.
“Though the hours spent learning modern standard Arabic and [the dialect of] Darija were tough, they helped immensely while living with my host family and traveling around Morocco,” Bar says.
Bar’s own Middle Eastern ancestry motivates her study of Arabic; she is also driven by her scientific inquiries.
Her research as an undergrad delved into the testing and treatment of cystic fibrosis and how cystic fibrosis prevalence varies between racial and ethnic groups. Bar noticed early on that data on Middle Eastern populations was sparse. Speaking Arabic, she hopes, will allow her to study genetic diseases in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Bar is headed to Washington D.C. next to research gene therapy at the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in the therapeutic development branch.
Benjamin Cheng ’25
Similar to Bar, Cheng’s desire to learn a new language was motivated by his scholarly interests. A paper he wrote for an anthropology class sparked his interest in ethnic Koreans living in Japan who belong to underground criminal groups. This past summer, before and after the Critical Language Scholarship program, he conducted further research on the topic through Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program.
To enhance his study, Cheng enrolled in Korean classes at Claremont McKenna College and applied to the CLS program.
A typical weekday in the program for Cheng involved language class in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and playing soccer with locals in the evening. On weekends, the cohort of CLS scholars experienced cultural programming such as making traditional Korean dishes and staying in a Buddhist temple.
The cohort of 25 CLS scholars, which included graduate students as well as undergrads, left a deep impact on Cheng. “It was eye-opening to be exposed to people that were very passionate about getting into public spheres of work after graduation,” he says. Now, Cheng sees himself returning to Asia after college and perhaps facilitating business communication and international relations between China, Taiwan, Korea and the U.S.
“The program gave me a better idea of where I want to be and what I want to do, as opposed to what job or title I want to have in the future,” says Cheng.
Arivumani Srivastava ’26
This summer Srivastava studied Urdu at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Lucknow, India.
Srivastava was motivated to learn the language because his family speaks Hindi, which is mutually intelligible with Urdu. Furthermore, Urdu is typically written in Nastaliq, a variation of the Arabic script, and he had studied Arabic for two years.
Nevertheless, the first few weeks of classes were incredibly difficult, says Srivastava. “If you spoke English, you lost points on your grade,” he says.
After four hours of class a day, Srivastava spent the next four to five hours in various immersion activities. With his language partner, he would head into town to view historical monuments, sample the food, and shop, all in an effort to improve his language skills.
“Seeing my language gains now, it’s fantastic,” says Srivastava. It was especially gratifying to visit family in India and hold a conversation with his grandparents “for the first time in the language they’re most comfortable with,” he says.
Srivastava is not sure of his major at this point or what work he will do in the future. But, after this summer, he knows that whatever he does, he wants it to be international.
“The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of places like Lucknow that are so rich and diverse all over the world is encouraging me to pursue a path that would allow me to experience as much of that as I can,” says Srivastava.