Eleanor Clouet Boyle, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School, spent most of her summer with a family in India, immersed in learning Hindi. Along the way she learned a lot about Indian culture -- and about herself.
Boyle took part in the National Security Language Initiative-Youth, a program of the U.S. State Department designed to introduce young Americans to languages and cultures that the U.S.government considers critically important to national security. Boyle, who had already traveled to India with Meyru and Tana Bhanti and their family, decided to apply because she sought the challenge of total immersion.
"Since I was there for only three weeks before, I wanted to delve deeper into the culture," she said. "And I didn't speak any Hindi before I left, but I've heard it all my life, also with the Bhantis -- we've been best friends since we were toddlers -- so the sounds were a little bit familiar. It sounded like a great program because it was so focused on language, and that's what I was interested in learning, and you have six weeks in a family, so it's a very intense program."
The program is fully funded by the government, and admission is competitive.
"Applying for this scholarship is like applying for college," said Boyle. "It has a lot of steps and it's very complicated. There's a long application with lots of steps and then you write a couple of essays, and then I had an interview -- in person, although they also do it over the phone if you can't get to them -- and then I waited, which was nerve-wracking."
The interview itself was informal.
"They have these really friendly volunteers asking questions," Boyle said. "The hardest questions for me were about what you would do in this situation, and that can be hard to predict before you're in the situation -- like ‘What would you do if your family treated their servants badly?' -- which you have to think about ahead of time, but it's hard to come up with a self-promoting interview answer to questions like that.
"They're also interested in what you're planning to do with what you learn, like whether you're going to follow some career path with it, or what you're going to do to keep studying -- they need to see you as a good investment, because it's a full scholarship," she continued. "I told them, especially because I have friends that speak Hindi, that I could keep practicing and keep learning when I got back -- and I was honest that I don't have a specific idea of what I want to do with it, but once I have the skill I'll be able to be active in the Indian community, whether I'm in the States or in India, and I'll be able to keep it up and keep using it."
The first part of the program was orientation, which took place in the U.S.
"You go and meet all these kids that you're going to be stuck with for the next six weeks," Boyle said. "It's also nerve-wracking, but also great because you know everyone else is in the exact same situation.
"Then when we got to India we were all a little muddled, so our host families came and found us through a huge crowd at the airport," she recalled. "From there we went home with them, and spent a couple of days with our families getting to know them. Over six weeks you really become family -- especially for Indians; after two days they would say, ‘You are our daughter.' I had a little brother, and I've never had a brother, so it's a great way to be a part of a different family dynamic."
The Americans studied Hindi at the same private school their Indian siblings attended.
"We met every single person at the school, and they were so welcoming -- they performed prayers and blessed us every single day for the first week," Boyle said.
She commented that the Hindi lessons were a cultural challenge as well as a language challenge.
"You don't know what to expect from them and they don't know what to expect from you," she said. "So the first night we had a ton of homework, and because they're Hindi teachers and don't really speak English, they had no idea that we didn't even have a basic understanding of Hindi. And that was one of the fun challenges to overcome -- when we were able to communicate with our teachers and actually get an answer back, after trying about a hundred different ways, we were so proud of ourselves and them and they were so proud of us and themselves."
Relationships between teachers and students are not the same in the U.S. and India, Boyle noted.
"In India, traditionally you're not friends with your teachers the way you are here, but because we were exchange students they were so protective of us all the time that they were like extra moms," she said. "After that first week we figured out what page everyone was on in learning Hindi, and we were able to start at the very bottom with things that toddlers already know, and building our way from there up, every step was a complete victory. When I started putting words together with the Devanagari script, it was like being six years old and writing my first word. You feel very proud of yourself -- and when I wrote out a couple of words, my host family came around and gave me a big hug and were super-excited."
"For classroom learning, your host moms are one of the best tools you have," she went on. "They help their kids so much that they're willing to help you, one-on-one. For cultural learning, your host siblings are your best resource because you can turn to them and just ask, ‘Is this OK? Is this appropriate? How do you do this? What is everyone talking about?'"
The American students learned more writing than speaking, Boyle said.
"Most Indians can't understand why we can't hear those sounds because they're so subtle and different from anything we're used to," she said. "You start at a level that is infantile, trying to hear sounds that babies already recognize, and you build yourself up to a point where you can make simple sentences. But you're halting and not sure, because the sounds and the grammar are so different that you will say things wrong, over and over, and people will either laugh at you or correct you kindly -- and you learn not to be embarrassed about it."
She experienced moments of culture shock when her assumptions met a different reality.
"There were definitely times when things that seemed completely acceptable or normal to me were looked down on, or people there were a little judgy about them," she commented. "That can be a hard feeling, but you have to be patient and realize that they can't even visualize or imagine your life in America, and it sounds completely wacky to them."
Boyle believes that meeting all the program's challenges changed her.
"I feel like I'm better able to deal with things now, better able to handle things that would have thrown me off before," she said. "I gained a lot of strength and confidence -- or at least became aware that I had strength and confidence that I wasn't aware of before.
"As for the future, I know that I will go back to India and that I will use the experience, but at the moment I don't know how I'll channel it. Probably in 20 years I'll look back and see exactly how that changed my path, but right now I can't see where it's pushing me."
Maggie Cassidy teaches French at BUHS.