Rutgers Seniors Receive Prestigious Scholarship to Pursue Love of Languages

Rising Seniors Alan Levita and Albert Zou will study abroad this summer, learning new languages.
Rutgers-New Brunswick students Alan Levita, left, and Albert Zou, both rising seniors at the School of Arts and Sciences, will spend their summer in Turkey and India, respectively, immersed in learning the language of their host countries.
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

The students will spend their summer in an immersive experience funded by the U.S. State Department

Alan Levita’s love of languages runs so deep, he once dreamt he had a little pocket translator: If he pressed a button, he could speak any language in the world.

“I quickly learned that you can't really learn every single language and even learning a second or third one is very difficult. So, I settled on studying linguistics because linguistics, technically speaking, isn't about learning any specific language. It's about learning how a language functions at its core.”  

Rising senior Alan Levita was awarded a scholarship to study Turkish this summer in that country.
Alan Levita, a rising senior at the School of Arts and Sciences, will spend the summer in Turkey, learning the language. "I thought it was a really interesting language because it has so many different influences.”
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Rising seniors Levita and his classmate and friend Albert Zou will spend their summer overseas – in Turkey and India, respectively – immersed in learning the language and culture of their host countries.

Both Rutgers University-New Brunswick students are recipients of the Critical Language Scholarship, a program run by the U.S. Department of State offered to undergraduate and graduate students to learn languages that the government deems essential to American foreign relations. About 500 students nationwide out of 5,000 applicants were accepted into the program, according to an announcement about this year’s recipients.

They will attend classes – Levita at Ankara University Tömer Institute and Zou in Jaipur at the American Institute of Indian Studies – stay with a host family, and go on weekend excursions with other program members. To ensure no time is wasted learning, each will be paired with a language partner, who will have casual conversations with them.

They both already speak multiple languages, but neither has a personal or cultural connection to their host countries.  

Levita, whose parents are from the former Soviet Union, speaks Russian and Spanish fluently, but has also studied Hebrew and Portuguese. Zou, whose parents are Chinese, speaks Mandarin and Spanish.

Albert Zou was awarded a scholarship to study Hindi in India this summer.
“If I hear a language, I’d want to study it," said rising senior Albert Zou, who will study Hindi this summer in India.  
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

For Zou, his interest in Hindi came by association. He has many Indian friends who have exposed him to Bollywood movies, a genre he has grown to love because of its vibrancy, fantastical story lines and fun dances.

“I’ve always had a bug about languages in my head,” said Zou, of Holmdel, N.J. “If I hear a language, I’d want to study it. Maybe I’ll never get fluent at it, but I want to learn more about it.”

Zou, a Rutgers-New Brunswick Honors College student, really caught the bug a couple years ago when he studied abroad through a program offered by Rutgers Global at University of Valencia in Spain.

“That was a transformative experience,” Zou said. The trip inspired him to switch majors and schools, from applied sciences in engineering and computer science at the School of Engineering to computer science, mathematics, linguistics and cognitive science at the School of Arts and Sciences.  “I felt like I was learning something new every day, and not necessarily from a textbook, but just learning things about myself, learning things about other cultures. It made me fall in love with language learning.”

Levita loves to learn the stories behind words.

“Words are little vehicles of information that are carried throughout history for thousands and thousands of years,’’ said Levita, who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics in the School of Arts and Sciences. “Based on a single word, you can find evidence of migration, conquest and trade.”

Growing up, Levita, of Summit, N.J., was exposed to lots of '90s Europop music, including Turkish pop star Tarkan. That led to his interest in the Turkish culture and language.

“I thought it was a really interesting language because it has so many different influences,” Levita said. “Turkish itself comes from the region surrounding Mongolia and it's intertwined with Persian and Arabic due to religion with hints of French and Italian. It’s like a melting pot of all that the Ottoman Empire was.”

Levita and Zou had seen one another on campus before but they really bonded in a shared class, "Computational Linguistics" with Associate Professor Adam Jardine that they took in the spring semester. Levita happened to notice that Zou was on the Critical Language Scholarship’s website.

“I'm like, ‘Whoa, Albert, did you apply to the same thing?’ It was like the day before the results came out and we were both so hyped about it because we didn't know anyone else who applied for this scholarship.”

Anne B. Wallen, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships, praised the duo for receiving the scholarships.

“Rutgers students are globally aware and eager for experiences like this,” she said. “We can’t wait to hear their stories when they return this fall.”