Senior Davin Khan’s interest in international relations and diplomacy led him to apply for the U.S. State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI‑Y), a merit-based, fully-funded scholarship that gives American high school students the opportunity to travel overseas to study languages and cultures.

From thousands of applicants across the country, Khan was one of 442 students selected to receive a NSLI‐Y scholarship. This summer he traveled to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he lived with a host family, immersed himself in the culture and community, and engaged with peers as he learned Persian (Tajiki).

In this Q&A, Khan talks about his interest in Persian, how his host family and friends helped him immerse in a language he had never spoken before and how the experience is informing his plans for the future.

Q: NSLI‐Y provides opportunities for students to study Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian or Turkish. How did you decide to pursue Persian (Tajiki) and did you have any prior experience with the language and/or culture?
A: Because I’m specifically interested in Iran and the Middle East, I knew I wanted to do a program studying Arabic or Persian. Although Tajiki is different from Farsi (Iran) and Dari (Afghanistan) on account of its Cyrillic alphabet, they are all a part of the Persian language, and many of the words and structures of sentences are similar. I decided on Tajikistan because there are fewer programs to study Persian than Arabic. Additionally, Tajikistan is a country that I would probably never end up going to outside of this program and is much more of a different experience to living in the U.S. than other locations. Aside from any pre-program assignments, I had no prior experience in the language or the culture.

Q: You lived with a host family while in Tajikistan. Can you tell us a bit about them and how they helped you immerse yourself in the language and culture?
A: My host family was an extremely welcoming traditional Tajik family. They had two sons around my age with whom I spent most of my time. My host brothers would take me to explore Dushanbe, eat meals with me, help me with my homework, play soccer and more. At first, I was extremely nervous that I had to stay with [a host] family, especially because none of them spoke English. The language barrier made the first couple weeks especially difficult as I didn’t know much of the language, and I could only really communicate with broken Tajiki, acting things out and [using] Google Translate, which was not very accurate. However, this really forced me to improve my Tajiki and helped intensely immerse me in the language. It also allowed me to see how much my language abilities improved as gradually I became less reliant on translators and acting things out. It was really incredible to see what started as broken sentences turning into hour-long conversations. [My family] would actively help me with my pronunciation and grammar, and, in turn, I would teach them the English translations and help improve their English. I am extremely grateful to my host family for helping me improve my language skills and caring for me as one of their own. 

Q: Did you make friends with local peers? If so, how did they impact your experience? 
A: During the program, we had multiple opportunities to interact with local peers. I was next-door neighbors with two peers in my program, so I became close to their host families as well. We (my host brothers and their host siblings) would all hang out together, playing soccer and video games and walking around Dushanbe. As part of the program, we also had “language partners,” Tajik youth who could speak English. Our language partners took us on excursions once or twice a week for a couple of hours to places like parks, stores and even the Barbie movie, conversing entirely in Tajiki. 

NSLI-Y requires a volunteering component for every program. We would go to both the Dushanbe American Space, which is a place for Tajik youth to learn English, and the English Access Microscholarship Program, a U.S. State Department foundation to teach Tajik students English. As citizen ambassadors, we did mini-presentations on life in the United States and spoke to students in small groups about food, education and more in our respective countries. All of these experiences of interacting with local peers were extremely valuable in improving our language skills and learning more about life in Tajikistan for kids our age. 

Q: Can you tell us about an activity, class or experience that was particularly meaningful to you?
A: One meaningful experience was around halfway through the program, my host mom came and sat down in the living room and we talked for hours about our lives, families and more. Afterward I realized how extraordinary this was. Before coming to Tajikistan, I knew absolutely nothing, so it was crazy that in a couple of weeks my language skills drastically developed and improved.

Q: Has participating in NSLI-Y made you think differently about opportunities you might pursue beyond high school? 
A: Definitely. Even right now, I’m using the skills I’ve gained in Tajiki as stepping stones to study Farsi four hours per week remotely through the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. While we were in Tajikistan, we routinely ran into other Americans on the street from the Critical Language Scholarship program and the Eurasian Regional Leadership Program. These programs are for college and graduate students but focus on Farsi rather than Tajiki. I would definitely consider doing one of these programs, especially because I’m interested in international relations and the Iran/Middle East region.

Q: What would you tell other students who might be considering applying for the NSLI-Y program?
A: I would definitely encourage other students to apply. While it certainly can be rigorous and daunting at times, it’s worth it to venture outside your comfort zone, as this experience has been incredibly valuable and life-changing. Studying abroad is such a formative experience, and NSLI-Y is an accessible and unique opportunity that really allows you to evolve as a human being and student in such a short period of time. 

Also read about Rishabh Balachandran ʼ23 who studied Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan as part of NSLI-Y summer 2022. The application deadline for NSLI-Y summer 2024 is Thursday, Nov. 2 at 4pm (ET).