For Jack Anderson, a Washington and Lee University sophomore, from Babylon, N.Y., the chance to spend eight weeks of intensive language study in Azerbaijan was an ideal way to pursue his interest in developing an independent major in geopolitics and international affairs.
Anderson received a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) and was one of seven CLS students who studied at Azerbaijan University of Languages, in Baku, the nation's capital.
"We covered an entire academic year of Azerbaijani during two months of intensive instruction," said Anderson. "We had two amazing teachers, Sabina Aliyeva and Fiala Abdullayeva, who worked diligently with us all summer long."
Azerbaijani, a language closely related to Turkish, is the official language of Azerbaijan and is also spoken by millions of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in other nations, including Iran and Russia. The CLS Program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Participants are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship period, and later apply their critical language skills in their future professional careers.
"Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, has emerged as a regional leader in the Caucasus and an important energy exporter to Europe," said Anderson. "The Caucasus region is fascinating to me because of its unique geopolitical circumstances. I hope that having Azerbaijani language skills will enable me to study abroad again in the Caucasus region."
In addition to the intensive language instruction, Anderson and his fellow students were immersed in Azerbaijani culture — "especially the great cuisine," he noted. "Azerbaijani food always has great fruits, breads and pastries.
"We had classes for at least four hours a day, Monday through Friday, all summer long," Anderson continued. "On most days we would have additional classes or cultural excursions. We visited museums across the country, archeological sites such as Gobustan, and saw an Azerbaijani opera called 'Shah Ishmayil.' We also had lessons in traditional Azeri dances, which were incredibly difficult and intricate. Sometimes we would go to the university's kitchens and learn how to cook traditional Azeri dishes such as plov, gutab and shekerbura. We also had lectures on Azerbaijani politics, history, religions and gender issues from Azeri professors."
One of the highlights for Anderson was a lecture by Samad Seyidov, the rector of the university and a member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, on Azerbaijani foreign policy, in which he explained why developing ties with the West is so important to Azerbaijan.
On weekends, the students traveled either independently or in groups to locations across Azerbaijan. "We visited Ganja and Sheki as a group, which are beautiful ancient cities," Anderson said. "I also visited Lahij, which is a small, medieval village isolated deep within the Caucasus mountains."
Anderson said that he would recommend CLS to any student interested in learning a challenging foreign language in an immersive experience. CLS offers more than a dozen languages in locations stretching from Morocco to Japan.
"I would especially recommend CLS to students who plan on using their language skills extensively in the future," he said. "Participating in CLS was a fantastic way to represent the U.S. abroad and to learn a new language. Hopefully I can return to Baku next summer and put my language skills to use."
A program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program offers intensive summer language institutes in 13 critical foreign languages. The selection process is administered by American Councils for International Education, with awards approved by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The CLS Program is administered by American Councils and The Ohio State University/Ohio University.
Anderson is the second W&L student to win a CLS scholarship in the past three years. Isaac Webb, a 2013 graduate, studied Russian in Ufa, Russia, during the summer of 2011.