During this long weekend in Washington D.C., the alumni attended a training hosted by The Moth to learn how to craft their stories and then had the opportunity to record their own unique stories about their NSLI-Y experiences. Throughout the training, alumni learned the importance of telling stories authentically in their own voices, setting the scene in ways which make the listener feel immersed in the story, and showing the listener why the events in their story are meaningful. Furthermore, the Moth trainers showed alumni how to shape their stories as an arc, through showing personal growth and change over time. Using these techniques, alumni were able to identify the inciting events and moments of change in their stories, as well as focus on how they wanted to portray the key takeaways and potential calls to action. Additionally, alumni met with representatives from the Department of State, explored Washington D.C., learned tips on giving strong presentations, and bonded through sharing many moments of laughter and connecting about shared experiences. Regardless of the language that each participant studied or when or where they were on program, everyone had a story to share about cultural mishaps, moments when a certain language concept finally clicked for them, or a shared bond with a language partner or host family. NSLI-Y staff enjoyed hearing those stories and seeing participants already applying the principles they learned during the Workshop. A few participants have shared their thoughts and reflections on the Workshop below:
It had been four years since my NSLI-Y program when I stepped off an Amtrak train in Washington D.C. It was time for the NSLI-Y Storytelling Workshop, something I had savored the thought of attending. So much had changed since I was on my Korean program: I studied five different languages, graduated from college, and completed the Critical Language Scholarship in Bangla. I was about to enter graduate school after a gap year, entering a different chapter of my life yet again.
By then, Seoul felt like a distant memory, something that remained in the past, triggered by the passing scent of hoddeok or a sign in hangul simply saying “pharmacy.” I clung to these memories, fearing the day that they may finally disappear. I continued to consume Korean modes of literature, film, and art. Those were my tethers, along with the language, to a life-changing experience. Even though now my thoughts were in a weird mixture of Turkish, Bengali, and Korean, this was the evidence that NSLI-Y was real.
The Russian alumna and I who took the train together gathered our belongings and took a cab to American Councils. At first, though, I felt a small sense of anxiety as the elevator ascended: this was the very first time since my program I had seen this many alumni gathered in one place. There’s a special kind of magic that appeared when we stepped off the elevator and entered the room where everyone was gathering. It was an eclectic mix of languages and the conversation easily flowed. While some had the opportunity to go to their program on-site, others were alumni of the virtual programs. What quickly emerged was the thread of common memory among this group of alumni. Regardless of the language, we all had a story about our favorite food, host families, and mishaps during language classes.
Then came the Storytelling Workshop with The Moth on Saturday. Split into groups of four or five, we went one by one through our stories. We listened to each other and nodded along to things we could relate to. Whether it was acne or getting lost on the subway, there came that universal thread of understanding. In a way, we were memory mining. When it was my turn, I found myself remembering little details that were tucked away in the forgotten corners of my mind: my host mother pouring my roommate and me cereal at 6:00 AM, sleep-eyed and stumbling over her words, or the kimchi mandu at Gwangjang Sijang that was a tad too spicy for me.
As a writer and artist, I always clung to the concept that I was creating something out of preservation. Those were typically ‘big’ things, like a life event. But as we sat with The Moth instructors and each other, I began to realize that the beauty of storytelling was in the mundane. The Seoul alumni could all reminisce about Seolbing, a bingsoo chain, or how incredible the subway was. Even if our experiences were years apart, distinguished by whether COVID was there or not, I found myself remembering that yes, there was a little ahjumma selling tteokbokki on this street or a statue there.
I left the Storytelling Workshop with more confidence on how to tell my story, but it was also a reminder of what made me passionate about studying languages. A group of twenty young adults were brought together with one commonality: they were NSLI-Y alumni. Yet, at the same time, we were all unified and bonded under this shared experience. That’s the beauty in being passionate about languages and the world: the people you meet.
Washington D.C. feels like hope and possibility. The first time I visited in eighth grade, I was amazed, and I knew that I’d be back. Returning as a junior in high school, I reflected on all that had happened since then: moving, starting to learn both Spanish and Russian, and experiencing more change than I ever imagined. I also completed the virtual NSLI-Y Russian summer program, something that has brought me so many new friends and experiences.
This time, I was in D.C. for the NSLI-Y Alumni Storytelling Workshop. It was another amazing experience that I was able to have because of the NSLI-Y program. While in D.C., I met with so many other talented alumni and each carried with them so many stories from their program, but my favorites were the stories of how they had chosen their NSLI-Y language. Some were heritage speakers. Others simply found the language interesting; everyone was passionate about their experience.
Some of the alumni had been on the same program together. Seeing the connection that they still had after so long apart made me so excited for my own program. This summer, I will be traveling to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with the NSLI-Y cohort.
Being surrounded by other alumni reinforced my understanding of my favorite aspects of the NSLI-Y program: passion and community. Everyone there had something that they truly loved and being around so many others who were so passionate was amazing. The experience also furthered my love for the NSLI-Y community. This organization has introduced me to so many other young people who amaze me and inspire me to become the best version of myself.
During our weekend in D.C., we had the opportunity to learn about storytelling from The Moth, a nonprofit organization. Our Moth mentors took the time to hear about each of our experiences and show us how we could improve these narratives. Through this workshop, I learned how to best use my experiences to connect with others. Storytelling, like language, is the art of communicating and connecting with others.
I’m so grateful that I was able to attend this workshop. I was able to meet amazing people, learn more about the profession I hope to enter, gain a much greater understanding of how to tell a story, and nerd out about language learning for a whole weekend.
The three days we spent in D.C. were full of fun and new memories. It was amazing to spend time with friends from my cohort I haven’t seen since we left each other in San Francisco last summer as well as meeting other alumni and interacting with NSLI-Y staff. It was also a time of reflection and learning. I learned a lot through talking with State Department staff and learned so many tips on how to craft strong presentations. During the workshop with The Moth, I learned how to tell a story and got to craft my own through talking about overcoming some of the challenges I faced while studying abroad in Seoul. I had a really great time and enjoyed getting to hear the experiences of other alumni. The chance to explore the city with fellow alumni brought me back to the weeks of exploring Seoul with friends.
The NSLI-Y experience does not end when everyone says goodbye at the airport. As an alum, there are so many chances to continue your language learning, connect with people with a similar interest in cultures, and share your experiences with the people around you.
From High School to University: Becoming an Alumni Representative
Stepping foot into Washington D.C., I took a left turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue. It was my first time on the East Coast. As a California native, I couldn’t help but soak in the overwhelming amounts of greenery mixed with towering glass buildings. Inside D.C. was a cultural enclave, rich with American history and stories alike. This weekend was going to be filled with storytelling.
As an Alumni Representative, I was invited to participate in the Storytelling Workshop hosted by American Councils. For three days, alumni of all ages, languages, and states came together to brainstorm story ideas. I recalled my own program experience. Last summer amidst COVID-19, I traveled to Seoul, South Korea for seven weeks. At eighteen years old, I held on to feelings of sheer excitement to be in South Korea. A summer of language learning and friendship making--all in another country--seemed like the perfect environment for an impressionable teenager to grow.
Korea reminded me of a distant cousin: although unfamiliar with the language at first, with enough support from my host family, teachers, and fellow classmates, I eventually got the hang of everyday life. Each neighborhood in Seoul gave me an idea for my passions. The historical sites of the 한옥 villages pushed me to explore East Asian history and culture, and the conglomerates of 롯데 and Samsung sparked my interest in modern business and technology. A conversation I had with my host father became the focal point of my story for the workshop. My NSLI-Y experience would not have been complete without these people by my side.
Fast forward one year later at the Washington Harbour--I finally reunited with some of my cohort members! Being able to put the faces to the memories really revitalized the bonds we shared. A wave of nostalgia hit when they told me they were graduating in a month. In just one year, we each made drastic changes to our lives: I decided to take a gap semester, changed my major, and attended my first alumni event in September. All of us took the initiative to record and share our stories with The Moth. It was at this workshop where we found the end-tail of our “W” curve--young adulthood.
Now, as a rising sophomore in college and an Alumni Representative for the Southern California region, I take on slightly different responsibilities than before: I collaborate with other Representatives (even if they go to rival schools) to host alumni events of all kinds. I help answer questions that finalists and prospective applicants might have about NSLI-Y. I represent the story of a first-generation Chinese-American who hopes to make international exchange more accessible to all.