MTSU student, graduate travel abroad to study language with scholarship from Department of State

Photo Courtesy of MTSU News

An MTSU student and an MTSU alumna have traveled overseas to study language after receiving 2017 Critical Language Scholarships from the U.S. Department of State.

Ethan McHugh, a senior double-majoring in philosophy and religious studies, and Bonnie Walker, a recent MTSU graduate with a degree in international relations and a minor in Arabic, are two of the 500 students that are selected from colleges across the nation to be a part of the CLS program. The goal of the CLS program is “broadening the base of Americans studying and mastering critical languages and building relationships between the people of the United States and other countries,” according to the CLS website. All of the CLS scholarships are fully-funded and allow students to travel to a foreign country with the purpose of mastering a certain language. The languages included in the program are Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.

Ethan McHugh, who is also the president of the Religious Studies Association of MTSU, left for Oman on May 30 to study Arabic.

McHugh said that his passion for exploring foreign languages developed before his time at MTSU.

“I first started taking Spanish in the eighth grade and pretty immediately fell in love with it,” McHugh said. “I always felt like it was a really great window into other cultures.”

McHugh stated that he first learned about the Critical Language Scholarships through his Arabic professor, Kari Neely, at MTSU.

“She worked with me through the process and a series of essays… and I got an email over spring break, letting me know that I had been awarded the scholarship,” McHugh said.

McHugh explained that he will be taking language classes and weekend excursions in Oman, during which he will not be allowed to speak English.

“It’s gonna be pretty terrifying, but it will definitely help my language skills develop,” McHugh said.

Despite the pressure of not being able to communicate in his native language, McHugh does have a full year of experience in studying Arabic at MTSU.

“Arabic is an incredibly difficult language. It definitely requires much more time than Spanish or other Romance languages,” he said.

McHugh explained that he will be in class for about five hours every day during the week and have about three hours of homework on school nights.

“We get one-on-one instruction with a local as a conversation partner, and we can spend four of the eight weekends we are there with a host family,” McHugh said.

He stated that, despite the assistance from his professors and peers, the allowance of a scholarship from the Department of State came as a surprise.

“I didn’t think in a million years that I would get chosen for it,” McHugh said. “So, even when I saw that email in January telling me that I had made it past the first round, I was incredibly happy and incredibly grateful to have made it that far. When I saw that acceptance email over spring break, I had no idea it was coming.”

For Walker, the news that she received the prestigious award was just as much of a surprise.

“I was actually sitting in a Starbucks doing some homework, and I was checking my email,” Walker said. “The email came in, the final one saying that I had been accepted through the final round. I was so shocked. I just sat there, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to start crying,’ because I was just really excited.”

Walker traveled to Azerbaijan on June 14 to study the Turkish language. While Azerbaijan will be a new adventure for the MTSU graduate, she has previously spent approximately 10 months in Turkey. She spent that time teaching and home-schooling the children of friends that she had in Turkey.

“That’s kind of where I developed a love for the language and the people and the culture,” Walker said. “Since I’ve come back, none of the schools in Tennesse offer Turkish. So, I’ve just been kind of continuing it on my own and hoping to get a CLS scholarship to be able to study in country.”

Similarly to her fellow MTSU CLS recipient, Walker’s love for learning foreign languages began at an early age and grew throughout her college years.

“I can’t really think of a specific event that it developed,” Walker said. “My dad is an engineer. My brother is an engineer. My mom is an accountant. So, international relations and liberal arts didn’t really connect with what my family had done previously… I honestly don’t have a specific moment when it started. I guess it was just there.”

She stated that the aspect of being thrust into the culture of a foreign country will enhance her ability to learn the language and the context of the language.

“I honestly think that one of the reasons I never excelled in Arabic and Spanish was because I never had that cultural experience,” Walker said. “It was just in the classroom … With CLS, I will be forced to speak it wherever I am.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email

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