By: Melina Piatti-Chayan

Through the Critical Language Scholarship, Seana Epley traveled to Tanzania twice–in 2020 and 2021. But both times she traveled virtually.

Rather than being located physically in Tanzania for 8-10 weeks, Seana engaged in Tanzanian culture and learned Swahili through her laptop screen. Despite the unique circumstance, Seana embraced it with open arms: she participated in four-to-five Swahili classes each week, studied with language partners, and interacted with local leaders and community members.

In our conversation, Seana not only provides insight into her experience in CLS, but also gives advice to those seeking to apply for a scholarship themselves. 

Seana, why don’t you tell me about yourself?
I was originally born in North Texas but moved to California for high school. At the age of 19, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and, while on Active Duty, I began taking undergraduate classes. Post-Army, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Emergency Management and Planning from the University of North Texas in 2017. During this time, I became interested in working in East Africa through courses on international aid and nonprofits. I began studying Swahili independently with a tutor and I applied for CLS for the first time in 2016, although I did not receive the award that year. 

After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked in the nonprofit disaster response sector for two years until I decided I wanted to shift to international work, hence my enrollment at Fordham’s Humanitarian Studies degree program in the fall of 2019. I was still drawn to the complex circumstances happening in East Africa so I redoubled my efforts in studying Swahili and applied again for CLS, but this time I won! 

Why did you apply twice for the CLS?

I applied twice because I knew I had so much more to learn about the language and the culture surrounding it. Especially after a condensed and virtual first award year, I was eager to keep growing in my language journey.

It seems that you’ve been drawn to the Swahili language for quite a while–where do you think this interest came from? 

My interest in Swahili started during my undergraduate degree. I became interested in the language because it is widely spoken in East African countries where there are overlapping circumstances that create a unique need for humanitarian aid and response, such as drought and flooding, food insecurities, and even conflict. Learning Swahili became a necessity for my career goal. 

What did your schedule as a virtual grantee look like?

Broadly, my typical day included two hours of classroom instruction four-to-five days a week with additional culture activities once a week where local leaders and community members would share their experiences, businesses, and social programs. I also met one-on-one with my teacher at least once a week with other students in my class weekly as well. Additionally, we were each assigned a language partner who lived in Arusha who we would meet with two or three times per week to practice our skills in a more natural setting via video calls. 

I think it’s safe to say the pandemic altered your experience with the award, but in what ways?

Completing the scholarship virtually absolutely impacted my experience both practically and personally.

From a practical standpoint, not being in the country and not being required to think and speak in Swahili at all times (particularly while living with a host family) greatly reduces your ability to absorb the language and become fluent. I would spend a couple hours in class online then “return” to life in the US where my only option was to speak in English. I still learned a great deal and am very grateful for the opportunity, but I do recognize that my skills are not as deep or as sharp as they would have been if I attended in person.

Personally, I am a social and adventurous person who was looking forward to building deep connections with my cohort, teachers, host family, and the community of Arusha. Although I do feel we created genuine relationships during our virtual program, nothing can truly replace actually being together in person experiencing the culture. And of course, we received less interaction with the local community. However, the program did a fantastic job adapting the curriculum to include virtual meetings with local leaders!

How did your prior experiences at Fordham help you prepare for CLS?

The Humanitarian Studies degree program and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences brings together a diverse group of students and professors with a variety of backgrounds, origins, and experiences. Getting the opportunity to learn from and work alongside those incredible people prepared me in the best way to learn with the equally varied participants and teachers of the CLS program. Additionally, my first CLS program in 2020 took place after nearly a full semester of online Fordham classes, which increased my comfort and confidence in learning and participating in online classrooms.

Looking back at your experience, how did the CLS shape your future career/goals?

Now that I’ve attained some Swahili skills, it has truly helped build my confidence in what jobs and roles I can apply for and what I ultimately see for my future. 

Since completing CLS, I had the volunteer opportunity to lead a team of medical professionals providing COVID support in Uganda, which is something I would never have raised my hand for before. CLS has changed my life and I’m positive that it will continue to do so. 

What advice would you give to other Fordham students applying to CLS or other language fellowships?

Understand and be able to communicate your “whys” for needing the CLS program and what value learning your target language will bring back to your community and the United States through your future career and goals. What can CLS do that you cannot get anywhere else?

In terms of the application, when talking about past experiences, focus on the positive outcomes versus challenges themselves–CLS readers want to hear how you took a difficult situation and turned it into an advantage or learning opportunity. Finally, choose words that exhibit confidence in being selected, avoid “if” statements and instead use “when.”

But most importantly, be willing to try, and fail, and try again.