Katherine Schmidt’s Experience as a Critical Language Scholar in Azerbaijan

Katherine Schmidt is a 2018 Critical Language Scholar. Katherine graduated from the SFS in 2018 with a B.S.F.S. in Science, Technology, and International Affairs, with a minor in Chinese.

After graduation, I was not grappling with the uncertainty of “Where will my job be?”; “What will I do with my life?” and “What does it mean not to be in school?” (all of those questions would be asked later). Instead, I was asking myself, “What is Azerbaijan?”; “Was I crazy to apply to the Critical Language Program?” and “How am I going to learn this language in three months?”

The short answer is: yes, I was kind of crazy to apply to study in a foreign country immediately after graduation. It was a wild move that made people question my life plans and made for sometimes awkward conversations about post-grad life. It’s hard to have a conversation about a country that most people don’t know how to locate on a map.

But it was worth it. I highly recommend to everybody – especially seniors – to apply to the Critical Language Scholarship program if you are itching to learn another language, immerse yourself in a culture and a region you find fascinating, and make incredible connections along the way.

The Critical Language Scholarship changed how I perceive myself. After hours and hours in the classroom, talking with my language partners, studying on my own in cafes, communicating with my host family, and navigating the streets of Azerbaijan for no purpose other than my own happiness and personal victory, I realized that I value learning for the sake of learning. This was the only experience in my life where I was learning and studying not for a grade, but for myself.

Hiking up to a “qalcha” – a small tower – in a rural mountainous village with my friend, I realized that I value spontaneous adventures and flexible trips that lead to everything from conversations with old women on the side of the road to a drive up a mountain to a tea house. Never in my life had I experienced a culture so welcoming to outsiders (a friend of a friend of a friend hosted me in his house for a weekend), and I learned the value of connecting with others from a place that assumes good intentions and presumes humility.

Now that I’ve completed this scholarship and returned to the U.S., I’ve started to think about all of those classic life questions. Because of this experience, I’m emboldened to pursue research that connects my experience in Azerbaijan with my other academic interests, and I’m emboldened to take a less conventional life path because I’m more certain of what I want. I want to continue learning Azeri. I want to continue learning Chinese. I want to continue research, and I want to, ultimately, do good, meaningful work. I’m excited about all of this “post-grad life” adventure and am grateful for the experience I had with CLS.

So, for all of you seniors thinking about applying to CLS: apply. For all of you thinking about Azerbaijan: I’d be happy to talk about my experiences with you!


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