Undergraduate Learns More Than Language in Tajikistan
Elliott School senior Christopher Knight sounds like a seasoned investor when explaining his decision to study Farsi, a Persian language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, while abroad in the 2011-12 academic year on a Boren Scholarship.
"I actually didn't start studying Farsi until my sophomore year at GW," said Christopher. "Very few undergraduates across the country are studying Farsi, so its value seemed to still be flying under the radar, despite Iran's centrality to U.S. national security interests."
To facilitate his decision, Christopher applied for and won a Boren Scholarship from the National Security Education Program, which provides funding to undergraduate and graduate students seeking to study languages and regions deemed critical to U.S. national security. Out of 994 total undergraduate applicants in 2011, only 152 were selected. Christopher felt naturally drawn to the scholarship—having learned about it in high school—because of its commitment to students willing to challenge themselves in places and with languages off the beaten path.
With the Boren award, a desire to learn Farsi, and only two semesters of previous study under his belt, Christopher embarked on the next stage of his academic journey—a year of intensive language study in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
In addition to learning the language, Christopher also learned about the ways in which Tajikistan is central to U.S. national security interests in the region.
"Since the Afghanistan war, the United States has seen Tajikistan as a strategic partner in its efforts to stabilize its neighbor to the south," he said. "The vast majority of opium and other illegal narcotics that are produced in Afghanistan cross into Central Asia and Russia vis-à-vis their 1000km border with Tajikistan. The profits from illegal narcotic production are an important lifeline for the Taliban, so the United States sees cutting off their smuggling routes as key to its counter insurgency strategy."
In addition, Christopher said, the smuggling business is also potentially destabilizing in Tajikistan itself. In July 2012, after Christopher had returned to the United States, the Tajik government waged a small war against local factions in Badakhshan Province, in the southwestern part of the country, over lucrative smuggling routes. "It was strange to see stores that I had visited riddled with bullet holes."
Overall, the experience prepared Christopher for meeting challenges and maintaining a sense of humor.
"One week my host family didn't have electricity or hot water for three days in a row. The third morning I was eating my breakfast of potato soup with a side of fried potatoes in darkness—as if serving the potatoes in two different ways releases different nutrients—and cursing myself for not studying abroad in Seville or Sydney. But those tough times have become funny stories and fond memories, so I can't say that I wish they didn't happen. For me, finding a way to deal with adversity was the most important lesson I learned by far."
Returning to Foggy Bottom this fall, Christopher has continued his language studies, taking Advanced Persian with Pardis Minuchehr, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies' Persian education program. In his final semester at GW before graduation, he will take two Persian classes, including an Elliott School graduate seminar taught in Farsi.