One is a ballroom dancer. The other, a self-professed media junkie with wanderlust. The first is from a small town in Illinois, the other from Fort Wayne, Indiana. They’ve both studied Spanish. And they’re both headed to Central Eurasia on a prestigious scholarship.
Two graduates of the Turkish Flagship Program at IU’s School of Global and International Studies will travel abroad on Boren Scholarships during the 2017-18 academic year. The awards, offered through the National Security Education Program of the Department of Defense, offer funding to undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in regions critical to U.S. interests. In exchange, the scholars commit to working in the federal government for at least a year after they return.
“I can’t exactly say that I’ve been dreaming since I was a child of studying abroad in Azerbaijan,” Rachael Wehrle concedes. Nonetheless, this will be her second extended stay in the former Soviet republic.
She’ll be using the award to study Turkish, but for security reasons, the Boren program is not currently sending students to Turkey. Instead, she’ll be studying at Azerbaijan University of Languages, in Baku. She’ll spend 17 hours a week studying Turkish, and three, Azeri.
That she’ll be studying her language of focus outside of Turkey’s borders doesn’t faze her. The Turkish Flagship student, who graduated in May with a double major in Central Eurasian Studies and Media, describes her path from Fort Wayne to Baku as “a weird journey,” but one she’s relished. Never having gone abroad before college, Wehrle’s appetite for travel was whetted in her freshman year by a spring break trip with the Media School to trace the footsteps of Hoosier war correspondent Ernie Pyle through England and France.
As a designer for the Indiana Daily Student, Wehrle – like Pyle – was weaned on newsprint, but has plunged into the new media environment. She was intrigued by the way the government has used social media to counter ISIS propaganda and thwart would-be recruits. Wehrle’s particular media focus directed her to critical regions of the world.
That orientation combined with a general passion for travel and language learning. After the Ernie Pyle trip, she was “really concerned about getting back abroad and wanted to incorporate a language component.” Wehrle had studied Spanish in high school, but wanted to get out of her comfort zone. “I wasn’t too concerned about what language. I just wanted for it to be something new and something I was unfamiliar with, and needed [for the study abroad component] to be affordable.” The Language Flagship programs provide ample funding for study abroad. In addition, the Flagships are designed to work in tandem with other areas of study, so Wehrle could combine it with her Media degree.
Going to Baku will by no means be Wehrle’s first trip since the Ernie Pyle jaunt. She spent eight weeks in Azerbaijan last summer in a language immersion program. And she’s always going somewhere. “Every so often I call home with this crazy proposal to do another study abroad trip,” she admits. Wehrle’s college career was also punctuated with a service trip to Panama and a week in Beijing studying media and culture. Although she doesn’t speak Chinese, she learned a few words to get around. She’s seen first-hand how language unlocks doors.
“It was a big awakening when I found that when I used the language in the host country people really opened themselves up to me,” Wehrle explains. “I find that people are far more receptive even if you’re messing up every step of the way. If you have that tool, you can count on making a meaningful connection.”
When she heads for Baku in September, Wehrle will be accompanied by fellow Boren Scholar Sabrina Tish, who is also using the award to fund her Capstone year abroad. The Turkish Flagship Program designs the Capstone year abroad as a means to achieving professional proficiency in the language.
Language learning had always come naturally to Tish, who took French and Spanish in high school. But Turkish was exotic for Tish, who grew up in the small town of Cary, Illinois. “You don’t really learn about Turkey or the Ottoman Empire when you grow up in the Midwest,” Tish admits.
A catered meal was enough to lure Tish to the Turkish Flagship meeting one night, and the financial incentives to study abroad that were discussed there sealed the deal. “You could get all this funding for travel so you could study abroad twice in your collegiate career,” Tish learned. “And I was so enamored with this idea that I completely dropped Spanish, and decided to take Turkish the next semester.”
Even though she’d breezed through Romance languages, “Turkish is one of those languages where when you start learning it feels like it’s impossible.” But after a year or so, it started clicking. And it’s turned out to be a “gateway language.” When last summer’s language immersion trip was rerouted at the last moment, Tish found herself in Kazakhstan, learning Kazakh and Russian in addition to Turkish. And in anticipation of this year’s trip, she’s learning Azeri.
Her language training pulled Tish into a deep engagement with Turkish culture and politics. But some lessons in diplomacy have transcended verbal language. “Sometimes I don’t have to say a single word to communicate what I feel,” she explains. That is, on the dance floor. “Your connection with your partner is very something completely different from your other relationships. There’s a lot of communication there.”
She’s drawn inspiration from the efforts of fellow ballroom dancer, Pierre Dulaine, whose efforts to foster cross-cultural understanding by teaching Israeli and Palestinian children to dance with one another have been documented in the film Dancing in Jaffa. “And because of those connections made in dance class,” Tish says, “these kids are always going to have that friend.”
Tish’s capstone thesis examined the way in which contemporary Turkish strategies to quash pluralism resemble the methods once used to establish the secular Turkish nation. “This exclusive identity will only lead the way to further divisions along ethnic lines,” she finds. “Coups and political turmoil have happened when a group’s identity has been so repressed that there’s nothing to do but break out.”
The cultural diplomacy achieved by such efforts as Dulaine’s, Tish says, is an antidote to this repression. “That’s how we make the peace that happens 20 or 30 years on. By opening up our arms and making that connection through education, through cultural programs.
“I think that’s where my place is, listening to these stories and finding those connections, being that bridge,” Tish asserts. “So I can very much see myself working in the federal government doing that. Whether that be as a political diplomat talking to people on the ground on both sides and finding those connections there, or whether that be through art or history, as a public diplomacy officer, bolstering these cultural programs. I want to advocate for people, and I want to advocate for their stories, because I think that’s where peace comes from."