Perspectives on the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) in India from Wesleyan CLS Alumni

article by Julissa Mota, ’26, Fellowships Assistant at the Fries Center for Global Studies, Fall 2022

The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is an immersive summer program that provides US citizens 8-10 weeks of language learning at various study abroad institutes around the world. These institutes promote rapid language gains in 14 different languages essential to the engagement of the US with the world, including Hindi, Korean, and Russian to name a few. Equally importantly, the program provides intercultural experience in areas of the world where it is necessary to achieve peace, national security, and economic prosperity. Students can apply in any year at Wesleyan; applications are due in November each year for programs that run during the summer months of the following year.

People gather in a large open room and one more joins the conversation remotely on a large screen at left

CLS program alumni share their perspectives on studying Hindi through the Critical Language Scholarship with prospective applicants at the Fries Center for Global Studies on October 26, 2022. Pictured, from left: Henry Leighton, ’25; Riya Ashby, ’23; Megan Levan ’22; Julia Augustyn, ’25; Assistant Director for Fellowships, Erica Kowsz; Laurence Fine, ’25; Julissa Mota, ’26; and Eli Siegel-Bernstien, ’24. Photo by Anita Deeg-Carlin.

This year, the Fries Center’s Associate Director for Intercultural Learning, Anita Deeg-Carlin, hosted a panel with alumni of the CLS program, who shared their experiences with CLS with current applicants to various CLS program. Current Wesleyan student Riya Ashby ’23 and alumni, Megan Levan ’22 and Roop Ghosh ’20, all of whom completed the Hindi language program in Jaipur, India offered their insights, through email, in person, and on Zoom.

A young man in sunglasses smiles at the camera in a green backyard with a blue sky

Roop Ghosh, Wes Class of ’20 and CLS Hindi program alum

When he applied to the CLS program his freshman year in 2014, Roop was consumed with the idea of reconnecting with his culture. Unfortunately, his application was not accepted. This rejection led him to take a semester off to volunteer in South India during his sophomore year, as he went out to find this cross-cultural experience for himself. When he returned to Wesleyan, he decided to give the CLS program another shot. He felt that he was more confident in his interest in learning Hindi when applying the second time. His experiences in South India were fruitful to him as a person, and in consequence his application felt organic and came from the perspective of someone who better understood the nuances of the culture and genuinely cared about it. His application was accepted: he attended the CLS institute in Jaipur in the summer of 2016.

A light skinned young person in a scarf smiles for the camera with two children and a puppy

Megan Levan, Wes Class of ’22 and CLS program alum, smiles for the camera during a trip to India

Megan had a strong a background in Hindi already when she applied  and had been looking to take her skills to the next level. She was hoping to take more advanced classes in the language at Wesleyan, but unfortunately, her high language level had surpassed the difficulty of courses offered at Wesleyan at the time she had applied. In the summer 2020, she earned herself a spot in the CLS Hindi program, but kindly rejected it to participate in the South Asia Summer Language Institute’s Hindi program at UW Madison. However, the very next summer, she applied to the CLS program again, was granted a spot once again, and accepted it. By then, things were quite different; she found herself in a remote-learning environment during the second heavy wave of COVID-19 in the summer of 2021.

A dark haired young woman stands smiling in shalwar khameez

Riya Ashby, Wes Class of ’23 and CLS program alum, in India during her CLS program

Riya, who applied as a junior South Asian studies minor, first came across the CLS program when searching for study abroad opportunities online. She is passionate about interdisciplinary work and grew up with an interest in Indian dance. When she landed on the CLS website, she thought to herself how great it would be to travel to India and be funded to do so. After all, she was looking to reconnect with the Hindi language, which she had taken at Wesleyan but dropped her sophomore year due to scheduling conflicts. Riya applied for the CLS Hindi program in fall 2021 and went on to study in India the summer of 2022.

All the enjoyable parts of the program did not come alone and without struggle. When these students were asked about the challenges they faced throughout the program, I recognized that all three of them attended the summer institute during very different years. Roop experienced the program in its full and original form, while Megan experienced a COVID-19 remote one, and Riya, the “back to normal” version. Different problems arose for each student in respect to which type of program they experienced.

Roop experienced the CLS program in its truest, most “normal” form. He took on a long flight to India, stayed with a host family, and ate cultural dishes, which he struggled to adjust to. He mentioned that his transition to the high carb veg diet was a challenge, and in consequence, he lost 20 pounds. He also experienced a rigorous curriculum as he mentioned late nights studying, getting only 5-6 hours of sleep each night. Fully taking on the “normal” study abroad experience, also brought him the very gift of meeting and genuinely connecting with the people in India. Roop states that this was one of the most rewarding parts of the program, and he thanks the interesting and easy-going citizens of Jaipur who made his language learning journey so fruitful.

Megan also commented on the time commitment, but she mentioned early mornings with online classes starting at 4:30am due to differences in time zones. Another downside to the online version of the program was the very little immersion compared to the in-person experience in Jaipur she had been hoping for. Interestingly, the CLS program has kept a version of the online institutes, the CLS Spark Program, even as they have transitioned back to offering in-person study abroad. The Spark program opens up access for those who are unable to travel but have a passion and purpose for studying a critical language. Although unable to attend in person, through online classes Megan was intrigued by her classmates all from different backgrounds who all shared an interest in Hindi. Like Roop, she thanked the people who made her experience gratifying: learning virtually is difficult and brings on different challenges but the excited and supportive classmates made this a worthwhile adventure.

Riya, who attended the institute after the peak of COVID-19, had to stay in a hotel rather than with a host family and encountered several restrictions on travel but attended classes in person in Jaipur. At the panel in October, Riya focused a lot on the demanding academic program. She described it as one with the difficulty level of college but where students attended classes all day, much like high school. The academic rigor of the institute seemed to have returned to the one Roop described before the program went virtual. However, as challenging as the classes were, Riya recognizes the able and willing teachers who helped her and supported her along the way. She especially appreciated the community effort as they tackled and worked through logistical issues derived from the attempt to evade a COVID-19 outbreak. Although things seemed to come back to normal with the program being held back in person, Riya had to struggle with some of the extra restrictions of living in the hotel and being less able to travel freely outside Jaipur during her time in India. Still, when she did go out into the city, she recalls, she had the opportunity to engage in conversations with the people on the streets of Jaipur – through them, she was not only learning the language, but also connecting with the local community and culture.

All three scholars explained that there is an initial hurdle that students face when learning the Hindi language. As intermediate learners, Riya and Roop had been struggling with this issue, and stated that by the time they completed the program, they were able to overcome it. They felt great satisfaction with the facilitation of their language learning, quicker and more efficient. We wondered what exactly flipped the switch for them. That was when Riya brought up those day-to-day conversations and stated that these exchanges of dialogue were the key to her language learning.

After hearing from Riya, Megan, and Roop on their experiences with the CLS program, it is hard not to praise their ability to examine and reflect on their own experiences with such maturity, humility, and grace all at once. All three students were faced with some challenges, honed their ability to adjust, and learned to love their language-learning journey despite adversity. They advise future applicants to embrace the tough parts of the experience, as they describe them as integral to one’s development as a Critical Language Scholar. Riya, Megan, and Roop have hopes to return to India in the future and want to remain in touch with the culture they fully dived into at least once before.

If you would like to read more about other experiences with the Critical Language Scholarship, including from students who’ve studied languages other than Hindi, read about Praise Owoyemi, ’18 and Emma Porrazzo, ’19 in the Wesleyan Connection and Wesleyan and the World. Applications to CLS are supported by the Associate Director for Intercultural Learning in collaboration with the Office of Fellowships. Prospective applicants are welcome to write to throughout the year about their interest in CLS.