Illustration by Brucie Rosch

When Jordan Borgman ’13 did not excel in high school French, she believed she lacked the facility to learn a foreign language. But when she left her hometown of Bangor, Maine, to spend a year of high school in Nagasaki, Japan, she surprised herself. Phrases soon began to roll off her tongue, making her feel as if she were remembering a language she already knew.

“It’s a lot more effective when you’re immersed in the language than when you learn it out of context,” says Borgman, a comparative literature major. Now comfortable in Japanese and the Indian language of Marathi, Borgman also speaks Spanish as well as Hindu/Urdu. “Learning a language is addictive,” she says with a laugh. “It gives you a [real] high.” 

This year Borgman has yet another opportunity to plunge into language study. She is one of two Barnard students to receive the prestigious Boren scholarship, which enables undergraduates to learn less commonly studied languages in the native environment. The senior has returned to Pune, India, to polish her Marathi and explore connections between the disenfranchisement of minority languages and of women, as well as power relations between Marathi and English; while Alexandria Petteruti ’14, an anthropology major, has traveled to the Republic of Guinea to learn the West African language of Malinké, and to consider the ways that the overlapping cultures (native Mande, French, and Islamic) of that region interact.

Funded by the National Security Education Program, the Boren Scholarships offer up to $20,000 per year for undergraduates to study in regions of the world “critical to U.S. interests and underrepresented in study abroad,” according to the program’s Web site. (Boren Fellowships, which provide up to $30,000 each year, are offered to graduate students for a similar purpose.) The number of applicants far exceeds the number of recipients; this year 1,014 undergraduate students applied—only 161 received scholarships. 

Gretchen Young, Barnard’s dean for study abroad, is delighted to have two recipients. Given the tough economic climate, she notes, an added benefit for Boren scholars is employment. The scholars agree to work for the U.S. government for one year. “The students say, ‘Wow, that is a perk, to know you have a job,’” says Young. That’s not to diminish the benefit of the funding itself.  Petteruti, who has known she wanted to study anthropology since high school and longed for “that shock of perspective” that comes from first-hand experience, says that without the Boren money she “wouldn’t have been able to go.” She almost didn’t go anyway. 

This year presented some unusual challenges, according to Young. First, the dean needed to secure a suitable course of study for Borgman, who is already an advanced speaker of Marathi. Additionally, instruction in India tends to be in English, and the Boren award encourages recipients to take classes taught only in the native tongue.

That obstacle seemed small compared to the trouble Petteruti encountered. She was set to study Bamana in the Malian city of Bamako, when the political situation devolved unexpectedly this spring, with a military coup displacing the elected president. Petteruti rerouted to the neighboring West African nation of Guinea, where she is learning Malinké, a language strikingly similar to Bamana. Reached this summer before she left, Petteruti expected the change wouldn’t affect her studies, except that her environment in Kankan would be less urban. “Kankan has a lot less electricity and fewer paved roads than Bamako,” she said. 

For the fall semester, Petteruti is undertaking an apprenticeship with a professional musician to learn how to play a stringed instrument called the jeli ngoni. Petteruti worked as the booking manager for Postcrypt Coffeehouse at Columbia and held various positions at the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival this past summer. She hopes that music will ease her adjustment, helping her understand the culture’s rhythms and tempo. Before she landed in Guinea, Petteruti had never heard a spoken word of Malinké, but she loved the music.

Petteruti is hoping to integrate herself as much as possible into the West African lifestyle, and plans to purchase fabric from the local marketplace to create a Guinean wardrobe. She does anticipate difficulty in adjusting “to what being a woman means in Guinea,” but she wants to look beyond the surface, to push aside her prejudices. “Just because it seems sexist to me, it may not be experienced that way by the women of the culture,” says Petteruti, who was excited to learn more about how sharia, or Islamic law, defines important cultural norms like puberty, marriage, divorce, and gender expectations.

Gender relations also interest Borgman, a comparative literature major with an interest in contemporary women’s literature. In India, Borgman expects to explore the status of Marathi, which despite its widespread use (the main spoken language in Pune), is becoming a “kitchen language,” used mainly at home and given only cursory attention in schools. English is considered the language of success, the workplace, and higher education. “If you’re a kid living in India,” says Borgman, “you’ll be told that your own language is useless, that the language you associate with your mother is useless. It won’t get you anywhere.” 

Unlike Petteruti, Borgman is returning to a land and language she knows well, having lived there for a year. During the summer of 2009 and the spring of 2010, she studied Marathi at the American Institute of Indian Studies; during the fall semester of 2009, she volunteered at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, where her duties included observing surgeries and deliveries, translating a survey into Marathi for visiting American medical students, and conducting workshops with adolescent girls on issues of self-worth. Selected as a student fellow for the 2012 Barnard Global Symposium, Borgman visited Mumbai, India, this past spring.

Returning to the country again this fall, Borgman is eagerly anticipating the heat and the colors—and of course, those “kitchen” conversations. She wants to better understand the ties between women, both the cruelty and kindnesses that pass between them. In a society where genders remain largely separated, the relationships between women gain importance, says Borgman, adding, “If you want to work on development here, you have to understand how relationships work.”