Alejandra Sanchez Reflects on the Critical Language Scholarship Program in Arusha, Tanzania
Alejandra Sanchez, a master’s student in international studies at Texas State University, spent summer 2023 studying Swahili and immersing herself in Tanzanian culture through the Critical Language Scholarship Program (CLS).
Each summer, undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities across the U.S. spend eight to 10 weeks learning one of 13 languages that are essential to America’s engagement with the world at an intensive study abroad institute.
CLS is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and managed by the American Councils for International Education.
Sanchez intends to earn her master’s degree in May 2024. During her time at TXST, Sanchez has been awarded the CLS in Swahili twice — in 2022 and 2023. Sanchez’s journey to learning Swahili began at Kalamazoo College, where she attended the University of Nairobi for a fall semester to immerse herself in the language.
“It was my first international experience in which I adapted and learned to live with entirely different beliefs and values,” Sanchez said. “My hosts were an upper-class family, which was a cultural and socioeconomic shock for me. There were servants, drivers, cooks, and a three-story home.
“Having grown up in poverty in rural South Texas, this experience was very daunting. I was perplexed by the cultural social class system within my host family. This experience encouraged me to practice my Kiswahili with the household. I used my English-Swahili dictionary to learn as quickly as possible. I talk to my friends from East Africa in Swahili and my friends and host family now. It has been an incredible journey.”
Why did you decide to apply for the Critical Language Scholarship Program?
Sanchez’s motivation for applying was rooted in her career ambitions.
“I knew in graduate school that I wanted to pursue a degree in international relations for either an international organization or a department of state,” she said. “Many of these organizations require that you speak more than one language. Even though I am bilingual, I wanted to make sure I could speak another language other than Spanish and English.”
What was your experience of studying and living in Arusha, Tanzania, during the summer, and how did you immerse yourself in your host community?
Sanchez had the opportunity to participate in both the virtual CLS program at the Arusha/Swahili Institute in the summer of 2022 and, recently, the in-person CLS program in the summer of 2023.
“I connected with teachers and language partners virtually and grew very close to them,” she said. “Once I was in person, I felt like I was meeting longtime friends. I got to explore the nature of Tanzania by going to Ngorongoro Serengeti Park, Mount Meru, and Mount Kilimanjaro. I hiked waterfalls and saw lakes all over Arusha. I was excited to grow my connections and, this time, have a host family. I grew my sense of purpose in my future goals as I had time to relax more than in my normal busy life in the States.”
On how the CLS program helped her develop her language skills in Swahili, Sanchez said, “I went from novice intermediate to intermediate-mid in a year!”
What are your long-term career goals, and how do you hope to incorporate your knowledge of the Swahili language and culture in your academic and professional work?
“The impact of the CLS experience on my career and academic trajectory has been drastic,” she said. “In CLS Arusha, the Conference for African Democracy was hosted at our campus. Luckily, many of us were able to network and meet important people in governmental programs and positions worldwide and in Africa. I met a famous musician and singer from Tanzania who sings for political change and human rights. It was the best and most life-changing experience.”
What did you learn about the process of applying for the CLS program, and what do you think contributed to your selection as a finalist?
Throughout the application process, Sanchez elaborated on her background as a border native to south Texas and Mexico.
“I grew up in a bilingual household,” she said. “I loved learning about the history and traditions of my culture. Once I was in school and learned about other languages and cultures like mine, it sparked my passion for language and cultural learning. I expressed this in my application. My career endeavors are connected to bridging cultures and languages across the globe.”
Future Critical Language Scholarship Applicants
On what advice she would give to future applicants, Sanchez said, “It was the best decision I've ever made. I learned so much about myself and others in a way I never would have if I had gone to a country where I knew the language and culture.”
Students interested in applying for the 2025 CLS Program should contact a TXST CLS Campus Advisor. For more information on the eligibility, program structure, application process, and languages available, visit the Critical Language Scholarship webpage.
To explore other external funding opportunities and to find information on first steps, past awardees, presentations and trainings, and funding databases, visit The Graduate College’s External Funding webpage.