MANCHESTER – Learning a new language and assisting the U.S. State Department in person-to-person diplomacy in Turkey: that’s how an East Catholic High School junior spent his summer vacation.
James Mello, 17, was among 625 American high school students awarded merit scholarships to study seven languages abroad through the National Security Languages Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y).
The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, seeks to increase America’s capacity to engage with native speakers of languages that are important in a global economy. Launched in 2006, it is designed to increase the number of young Americans with language skills necessary to advance international dialogue as well as increase understanding between cultures.
Simply put, “American high school students go overseas and study languages that aren’t taught in American schools,” said Mr. Mello.
Full-immersion language opportunities are available for Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian and Turkish.
These are languages spoken in countries “where it would be helpful if that country sided with America. In addition to learning the languages, one of the things emphasized in the program was that [these] countries are where America needs friends,” said Mr. Mello.
Instead of strengthening our ties diplomatically, one purpose of the program is to do that person-to-person, he said.
“I chose to study in Turkey because I was most interested in that part of the world,” he said. “At the same time, it is a relatively safe place; it’s part of NATO and wants to bring itself into the western world.”
“It still has that Middle Eastern influence and there is so much history,” said Mr. Mello, who plans to attend a smaller Catholic liberal arts college and ultimately become a high school history teacher. “I wanted to experience firsthand that culture and history and to have a real experience outside the pages of a textbook.”
Mr. Mello lived in the Republic of Turkey for six weeks in the city of Bursa, which is about two hours south of Istanbul by ferry. He stayed with a host family and took the train to the school where he and 15 other American students spent four hours each day in intense Turkish language instruction as part of the NSLI-Y program.
“I don’t think Turkish is an easy language to learn,” he said. “The grammar is so different from English.”
According to NSLI-Y, the Turkish language is remarkable for its grammar concepts, such as vowel harmony and six noun cases. Turkish uses the same alphabet as English but with six additional characters.
Following their daily language instruction, students would discuss a variety of historical or cultural topics, including Turkish history, Ottoman history and republican history. They visited nearby cities or toured area museums to reinforce lessons learned in school. Twice each week, the American students and their host siblings went to parks to meet Turkish people and practice their language skills. The students also engaged with Turkish citizens through local community service projects.
“We cleaned cages at the zoo, went to an orphanage and played with kids there. And we went to a place where they grow food and trees; we collected seeds from pine cones to grow more trees,” he said.
Beyond organized activities, students had opportunities to explore on their own. Mr. Mello and his new American and Turkish friends found bakeries and restaurants and met welcoming people who helped them navigate the metro in Bursa, a city of approximately 1.7 million people.
Living with his host family was a major highlight of Mr. Mello’s overseas experience.
“My Turkish parents were amazing and my host brother was awesome,” he said. “My host family is devout Muslim, but during my first weekend in Turkey, they took me to the shrine at Ephesus so I could go to Mass there and meet the friars and nuns.”
Together, he and his host family toured the area that was an important center for early Christianity. Saint Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus and many believe that Mary spent the last years of her life on earth in this area. It is a popular place for Catholic pilgrimage that has been visited by six popes.
“Roman Catholicism is one of the smallest religious minorities in Turkey,” said Mr. Mello. But there are three shrines in the country, where Islam is the religion of 99 percent of the population.
Through his experience, Mr. Mello found Turkey to be a peaceful and modern place.
“They are a western country and they have interstate [highways], supermarkets and the biggest shopping malls I have ever seen,” he said. “I think it is a safe place. The people have a strong national identity and the Muslim people are friendly and genuine and are some of the nicest people I’ll ever meet.
“There wasn’t one thing that I considered my favorite. The people, the places, the food, the culture, the history, just everything made it an amazing experience,” he said. “I went to Turkey and now I have a passion for learning the Turkish language and learning more about the country of Turkey. I want to go back,” he said.
Since Mr. Mello returned from Turkey in August, he has continued to study Turkish through an independent language study program. He is a founding member of the East Catholic High School History Bowl team and the member of the school’s track and cross-country teams. He is vice president of the junior class and serves as peer minister and service leader in school organizations. In addition, he teaches a seventh grade CCD class at Church of the Holy Family in Hebron.