Learning a language is a means to an end, said linguist Ellie Harlan ’21. She believes language opens doors and leads to cultural understanding and connections.
Harlan, who speaks French, Dutch, and Arabic, has won a prestigious Fulbright grant to Jordan, where she’ll be an English teaching assistant in the capital, Amman, starting in September.
“It’s a real honor, but also a huge responsibility to carry the culture that you’re representing with you all the time and sort of be a walking representation of your country’s values,” said Harlan, who envisions a career in public diplomacy.
In April, Harlan returned to her home in Westwood, Mass., from five months in Dubai, where she served as a youth ambassador at the USA Pavilion at the World’s Fair on a State Department exchange.
She’s eager, however, to return to Jordan, where she was studying until the pandemic cut short her semester in March 2020. She’s motivated to strengthen her linguistic capabilities. “I have experience with the dialect, but I want to dig in, learn it fully, and be able to fully communicate with people and really learn more about the culture.”
Winning a Fulbright represents coming full circle for Harlan, who learned to speak Arabic from Fulbright Fellows through Colby’s Arabic Program. Initiated 10 years ago by Associate Professor of History John Turner, Colby’s partnership with the Fulbright Program brings an Arabic-speaking fellow to campus each year.
The Arabic Program gets students up to speed, said Turner, and prepares them for an effective study-abroad experience. “It’s designed so they can step off the plane in Amman, Cairo, or wherever and really dive into an immersive environment.”
Harlan’s first immersive experience was an intensive two-month Arabic program in Ibri, Oman, the summer after her sophomore year through a Critical Languages Scholarship. These scholarships foster the acquisition of languages strategically important to the United States.
“It was an amazing experience,” recalled Harlan. “It really boosted my confidence in the language and expanded my curiosity about the region.”
Back at Colby, Harlan majored in government and took courses on the Middle East and Islam from various departments, including history and art. She also improved her Arabic, working with a new Fulbright Fellow each year.
Turner described Harlan as having “tremendous aptitude and amazing capabilities,” approaching languages with an intentionality that allowed her to be “extraordinarily successful.” As a testament to his confidence, when the pandemic prevented the Fulbright Fellow for 2020-21 to travel to the United States, Turner recruited Harlan to teach Arabic her senior year.
Harlan provided continuity for Colby students to continue learning Arabic and gained the real-life teaching experience she thought would make for a stronger Fulbright application. By delaying her application for a year, she felt more prepared.
As a Fulbright teaching assistant, Harlan hopes to be a source of inspiration akin to her Colby Fulbright educators, who instilled confidence and curiosity in her. “I want to give my students insight into American culture and values and have the confidence to continue with English even after I go back to the United States.”
Educators have been the most important part of Harlan’s trajectory toward Arabic and understanding the region’s politics and people. She’s eager to give back by joining the public diplomacy arm of the Foreign Service.
“I’m trying to establish grassroots connections between a host country and Americans through media, education, and outreach.” Such roles, she said, are critical to shaping global public opinions about America.
Harlan’s future is bright, Turner said. “She’s very articulate, composed, even-keeled. She’s also a deep thinker and someone churning through the variables. I anticipate that she’ll end up in the State Department and probably be an ambassador.
“Her trajectory is extremely promising.”
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