Critical Language Scholarship program offers intensive, inspiring experience

A man sits on a camel with a red saddle in a desert.
Nicholas Thomason takes a sunset camel ride in the desert just outside the city of Jaisalmer, India.

Although they studied three different languages in three different countries, Colleen Connolly, Zackaria Niazi and Nicholas Thomason tell a remarkably similar story about last summer.

Back-to-back classes. Homestays and delicious meals with local families. Travel and cultural experiences, both planned and serendipitous.

Connolly, Niazi and Thomason worked with VCU’s National Scholarship Office to apply for the Critical Language Scholarship Program. The office supports VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact VCU’s National Scholarship Office at or 804-828-6868. Applications for summer 2019 CLS programs (including Brazilian Portuguese for the first time) are open until Nov. 27. Anyone who is enrolled as a full-time student in fall 2018 is eligible to apply.

And very little time speaking English.

That’s because Connolly, Niazi and Thomason — along with Siona Peterous — participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, which funds intensive language learning programs around the world.

VCU’s four recipients for summer 2018 were the largest number of CLS recipients since the competitive program began in the summer of 2006.

The university’s 2018 participants reflected on their experiences as the National Scholarship Office currently seeks applicants for next summer’s program.

Niazi, a December 2017 graduate with a degree in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, studied Persian in Tajikistan. Thomason, a senior English and political science major and a member of VCU Globe, studied Hindi in India. Connolly, a junior majoring in graphic design in the School of the Arts with a minor in Chinese and a member of the Honors College, studied in Dalian, China.


What language did you study and why?

Zackaria Niazi: [CLS] grasped me at an important time where I was seeking programs to increase my Persian-speaking skills. One of the fascinating things about Tajikistan was that they had such a big influence from the Soviet Union and Russia. English was not spoken that much at all.

Nicholas Thomason: It stemmed from having a large amount of exposure to Indian culture through close friends and family friends growing up. That’s what initially drew me toward it, that warmth from friends and family. It’s evolved now to, “that’s what I want to study in the future.”

Colleen Connolly: I was probably in sixth grade when my dad was trying to convince me that starting a language young is really going to help you in the future. I think it was a combination of me genuinely being very interested in Chinese, but also being a rebellious sixth-grader who thought that my dad couldn’t find a Chinese teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As I continued studying, I grew to love the beauty of the language, especially the characters.

Three people stand in front of a red and black building.
Colleen Connolly, center, visited numerous sites around scenic Dailan, China.

During CLS, you have to speak the “target language” almost exclusively. What was that like?

CC: I would say that it is an incredibly intense experience. Eight weeks is a long time to be anywhere, especially in a completely new environment not being able to speak English. It was completely immersive.

ZN: Everything in the program had to be in the Persian language, which is a great way to improve on your fluency. I definitely saw a big improvement toward the end.

NT: It was beneficial to all of us in the long run. I didn’t realize how much I had done until I came home and I started speaking with Hindi speakers here. You’re able to focus on one subject for eight weeks, every day. That was really different than any other academic experience I’ve had.

A group of people stands at a scenic lake overlook.
Zackaria Niazi with fellow CLS participants at Iskanderkul, a scene mountain lake in Tajikistan.

What was daily life like where you traveled?

ZN: People in Tajikistan wake up very early. The birds would go crazy at 4 to 5 a.m. and you would wake up. Class was not too far from where I lived. It was in this complex that had a grocery store. It had almost everything that we needed. [At lunch] I would go to the gym and afterwards go get lunch. With the recent urbanization, there were great restaurants popping up daily: Mexican, Italian, Korean. We would experiment with different foods because we had lots of different Tajik food with our host families. [At dinner] my host mom would usually prepare a very elaborate table of food. They have amazing fruits that I have never tasted like that in my life!

CC: We stayed with our host family for the entire time, and that was probably my favorite part of the whole trip. I really connected with my host mom. I called her “auntie” and I called my host dad “uncle.” I would come home and [my host mom] would hand me cherries or any fresh fruit she had in the house. Cherries are a staple of Dalian during the summer, so I think I’ve eaten more cherries this summer than in my entire life. I’d do homework for about three hours, then I’d go to bed, then I’d do it all over again.

NT: I feel like I was lucky to have this close family where the mom cooked everything with love. It was always kind of a packed house, with something going on and people coming and going — someone to talk to.


What kind of travel and cultural experiences were memorable?

Niazi’s group quickly realized they were in a part of the world with few English speakers when they had a layover in neighboring Kazakhstan.

ZN: We had to figure out how to go about getting a taxi in Kazakhstan, where we did not know the language — nor did we know Russian!

A woman stands by a fence at a scenic overlook.
Colleen Connolly visits a scenic area.

NT: You’re free to get as much out of the city as you can on your own, with your peers, with your host family or with your language partners. They’ve got a structure set up so you’re never on your own. You’ve got connections. There would always be an emphasis on speaking the target language on these excursions, interacting with the local people. It was a lot easier to adjust and fit in to the city, to the culture, than I had thought. Every day during those eight weeks, you’re experiencing new things and you’re trying new things. The flights were really cheap there, so I could fly to other cities for $30 round trip, maybe. I’d get to experience a whole other city for the weekend. Other weekends, you could just sightsee around the city or catch up on work. It was a lovely city I was staying in. People were super friendly.

ZN: Tajikistan was a very beautiful, mountainous country. I got such a great, warm welcome. The culture is very friendly, and they give big importance to guests. CLS had four or five weekends set aside for excursions. We would go to a different place or town where we could experience different cultural activities.

CC: I did not travel anywhere myself because I really wanted to stay in Dalian, I was having such a good time. We went to the seashore, and we did some excursions with my host mom. Dalian is very clean and the air is beautiful there, because they are on a peninsula by the oceans. Sometimes I was walking home and I could have sworn that I could have smelled a little salt in the air.


What was your biggest takeaway from CLS?

A man wearing white clothing, with plants in the background.
Zackaria Niazi wearing traditional Pamiri Tajik clothing.

ZN: All of us had this same goal of learning Persian, but we had different ways of how we wanted to use this in the future and in our careers. It will allow me to have a broader and global impact in my future work. I could use these skills in the future as a physician to reduce issues in health care quality or access.

NT: I was so worried about keeping up in the summer. I always felt behind because there’s just so much to do. Really, you’re learning so much more than you thought. You’re speaking with your host family every day in the target language; the cab drivers; people in restaurants; every encounter you had is mostly in the target language so you end up learning a lot more in that short amount of time than you think.

CC: No matter what you go into, it will be helpful to learn Chinese. In my future specifically, it was really useful to have been in China and see that commercial aesthetic: What is the style that is part of the culture there? What are the layers of meaning there?


What would you tell prospective students?

A man stands in a pink and gold monument.
Nicholas Thomason sits in the Hawa Mahal in the city of Jaipur, India, a famous landmark in the state of Rajasthan.

NT: The application is a little daunting, but looking back on it, it’s nothing compared to what you get out of it if you are awarded the scholarship. Being able to travel and study a language for two whole months, that’s an experience I wouldn’t have been able to fund on my own. Even if you can afford it, it’s hard to get that experience of living with a host family. The program really takes care of everything and gives you experiences you wouldn’t be able to do if you were doing this on your own, or applying to a graduate program. It’s not going to be as comprehensive as the Critical Language Scholarship.

ZN: Students should set a goal and express how they will use what they’ve gained toward that goal. I had not traveled much outside of the U.S. prior to this experience. It will be an eye-opener. It will help you realize how different, but how similar, we are in the world.