Persian can often be overlooked by undergraduates selecting a foreign language course. But the language, spoken mainly in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, is opening doors for students — particularly those interested in foreign policy and international relations. OU students Libby Ennenga (class of ’17) and Yannick Davidson were recently accepted into the US State Department’s prestigious Critical Language* programs, which support the study of underrepresented languages by sending exceptional students on abroad for language and cultural immersion. The two became hooked on Persian after taking courses through OU’s Iranian Studies program — and it’s created opportunities they never imagined.
Libby Ennenga, Critical Language Scholarship Recipient
Libby Ennenga — who graduated from OU last spring with a major in International Security Studies and double minor in in Iranian Studies and Anthropology — didn’t start out knowing she wanted to study Persian. “Originally, I was working on a minor in Spanish at OU,” she says. “However, I took a class called Nationalism in the Modern Middle East with Dr. Afshin Marashi and quickly realized how fascinated I was with Iranian history and culture … When Dr. Marashi told me they offered Persian language, I was immediately interested in getting involved with the program. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
Ennenga enrolled in Persian language with instructor Marjan Seirafi-Pour, and the rest is history. “I fell in love with Persian,” she says. “I learned so much in my two years of Persian language at OU, but I also became a part of an incredible community, making lifelong connections with incredible people.”
Currently as a master’s student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Ennenga’s research focuses on “visual modes of communication between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its citizens, particularly women.” With the help of OU CIS and Persian program faculty, Ennenga applied for and was awarded the US State Dept.’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) to study Persian in Tajikistan this summer while living with a host family. “I will be sent to Dushanbe, Tajikistan for two months continuing my studies in Persian Farsi as well as learning the Tajik dialect,” she explains. “It is an incredible honor to receive the scholarship, and I feel so humbled to be a recipient.”
Ennenga’s future goal is to finish her MA, continue on to a PhD program and to one day become a professor. “My greatest achievement would be to normalize the conversation on Iran amongst Americans, as well as help share a more accurate portrayal of the country,” she says. “Knowledge is transformative and powerful — a lesson I learned during my time at OU.”
Yannick Davidson, National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship Recipient
OU’s other scholarship recipient, Yannick Davidson, is just starting out in his Persian studies, but already has a bright future ahead of him. A junior at Norman North High School, Davidson began taking Persian as part of OU’s Concurrent Enrollment program for high school students. Like Ennenga, Davidson didn’t start out with an interest in Persian, but ended up loving the language.
“Getting into Persian for me was a bit of a funny story,” he explains. “I’ve always really been interested in International Relations, and when the opportunity to take a concurrent enrollment course came, I was very excited. I am very interested in Southwest and Central Asia as a focus area, and I thought that learning Arabic would be a good step. My mom is good friends with [Marjan] Seirafi-Pour, and thought that she taught Arabic, so she arranged for me to meet her.”
As it turned out, Seirafi-Pour did not teach Arabic. But by the end of the meeting, she had Davidson sold on another language: Persian. “I haven’t looked back since then,” he says.
It seems Davidson made a good choice. Last semester, Seirafi-Pour encouraged him to apply for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Program (NSLI-Y), which, similar to the Critical Language Scholarship, awards high school students the fully funded opportunity for 10 weeks of immersive language study. He was selected, and after a round of pre-program study and orientation, Davidson will also be heading to Dushanbe, Tajikistan to study and live with a host family.
Davidson’s experience this summer will surely bring him closer to his future goals. “My biggest hope for the future is to be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) for the US Department of State,” he says. “Being able to both work abroad and in my target area, as well as serve my country seems like an amazing career.” When he returns, he will continue to take courses at OU during his senior year while also participating in Model UN, Quizbowl, Ethics Bowl and Philosophy Club at Norman North. And though he hasn’t decided on college plans yet, OU is in the running.
“Studying at OU is probably one of the best decisions that I have made so far in my High School career,” he says. “I am looking forward to continuing my concurrent enrollment, and potentially being a full time student in the 2019 fall semester.”
Congratulations to Libby and Yannick! We are so proud of what they have achieved, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.
Read more about Critical Language Scholarship programs
Read more about Iranian Studies and Persian Gulf Studies at OU
*Any discussion of the CLS programs herein reflects the students’ understanding and opinions and not those of the US State Department.