Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Open Doors for Penn Students

The South Indian state of Tami Nadu is a long way from rural Clarke County, Virginia.

But for University of Pennsylvania senior Ingrid Heidelberger a visit to Tami Nadum with her family while she was in high school led the native of Boyce, Va., to pursue a double major in linguistics and South Asia studies at Penn. 

“My family had begun supporting an NGO in southern India that ran day-care centers and children's homes,” says Heidelberger. “My dad frequently went to visit the various centers to see how they were running, and eventually he allowed me and my siblings to go with him.”

Key to her ability to conduct research in the Tamil language and pursue the study of medieval Tamil inscriptions at Penn has been the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships.

“Aside from supporting my Tamil language acquisition,” says Heidelberger, “the FLAS fellowship has helped me pursue my research interests. The fellowship has been especially crucial to my recent linguistics project, supporting my language learning and giving me the opportunity to consult with my Tamil professor on a regular basis.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the FLAS program offers undergraduate and graduate-level academic year and summer fellowships to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are enrolled full time and who want to study a modern African, Middle Eastern or South Asian language as part of their academic life.

At Penn, the program is administered by the South Asia Center, Middle East Center and Africa Center in the School of Arts & Sciences in coordination with the Office of Student Financial Aid. Eligible students may apply for a fellowship to study one of 26 FLAS-approved languages including Tamil, Hindi, Kurdish, Persian, Wolof and Swahili.

“The program can be an ideal way for students to help enhance and fund their study of a modern foreign language as part of their pursuit of a field related to international studies,” says Jody Chavez, managing director of the Department of South Asia Studies and the South Asia Center at Penn.

Academic Year FLAS fellowships are granted in the annual amount of $18,000 towards tuition and fees for graduate study and $10,000 toward tuition for undergraduate study. Summer FLAS fellowships are awarded a grant of $5,000 toward tuition with a $2,500 stipend. Eligible students may apply for multiple fellowships.

Heidelberger learned about the FLAS fellowship from her Tamil professor in her freshman year and has had the benefit of three academic FLAS fellowships while at Penn.

In the summer of 2013 a FLAS fellowship helped her to study Tamil abroad through the American Institute of Indian Studies program in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.  

She says, “During that summer in Madurai, my speaking, listening and writing skills all vastly improved. The formal program itself was extremely helpful, but even more useful was simply having the opportunity to live in the city and practice my Tamil with the people around me on a daily basis.”

Graduate student Christian Stillson is in his final semester in Penn’s master of public health program in the Perelman School of Medicine. He learned about the FLAS fellowship program from his isiZulu instructor Audrey Mbeje, director of African languages in the Africa Center at Penn.

Via the FLAS fellowship, Stillson has been able to continue his study of isiZulu, building on the language skills he picked up while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa.

“The FLAS fellowship has strengthened my fluency tremendously,” says Stillson. “When I returned from the Peace Corps in 2012, I never thought I would have the opportunity to speak the language again. A year later I began working one-on-one with Dr. Mbeje formalize my isiZulu after two years of self-teaching.”

Stillson, who plans to go to medical school after earning his master’s degree, had the opportunity to test his proficiency in the language last summer, doing research in Botswana as part of the Botswana-UPenn Partnership.

“We investigated the experience of caregivers for children with tuberculosis. While the predominant language spoken in Botswana is Setswana, I met many people who also spoke isiZulu,” says Stillson. “My ability to communicate and connect to those stakeholders, as an outsider, proved invaluable to conducting the study.”

Zahir Rahman, a FLAS Fellow and third-year law student at Penn, has spent the past two years pursuing Arabic as part of his focus on corporate law and project finance.

When he graduates in May, he will be working at a law firm in Washington, D.C. as part of its Energy & Infrastructure Projects group.

Says Rahman, “Many of the group's projects are abroad, including in Arabic-speaking nations. Having a stronger understanding of Arabic and the region will prove useful.”

For Mohamed Abdelgany, a graduate student in the International Studies Program at the Wharton School and Lauder Institute, the study of Arabic is helping him reach both professional and personal goals.

“While studying with the FLAS fellowship, I have developed my ability to talk about complex issues pertaining to any and all matters with fluency and clarity in the Arabic language,” says Abdelgany. “This fellowship has been invaluable to me in strengthening my grasp of the Arabic language and knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa through the Lauder Institute.” 

Last summer Adbelgany was able to use a summer FLAS fellowship to study in the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Tunisia.

“The study abroad was a true immersion in the Arabic language that included classroom study with local instructors, numerous guest professors and academics, fascinating cultural study trips and insightful company visits.

“The study of Arabic has also helped me to build stronger ties with family in Egypt. I am now better able to engage with them in deep discussion and have gotten closer to them in a way that I was not able to previously.” 

“Mohammed, Zahir, Christian and Ingrid are all great examples of FLAS Fellows who have been able to deepen their academic experience and research practice through language study while at Penn,” says Chavez. “The awards are based on merit and demonstrated financial need, and each spring we work to encourage students interested in these languages to consider applying for a fellowship.” 

A FLAS information session is planned for Friday, Jan. 23, from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Cohen Hall, Room 402. The deadline for 2015-16 and summer 2015 FLAS fellowships is Feb. 27.

A video of Christian Stillson speaking in isiZulu is here

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