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Catherine Shields ’19 Earns State Dept. Critical Language Scholarship

Catherine Shields

Catherine (Cate) Shields '19 (SUNY Geneseo/Udeshi Seneviratne '19)

During her sophomore year of college, Catherine (Cate) Shields ’19 read Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand, a novel about the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám and the creation of his poetry collection The Rubáiyát. “Maalouf’s book showed me a way to link the poetry, philosophy, and passion of the mystic past with the modern world,” she said. “I found a part of myself in that novel and vowed to continue nurturing those connections.” Soon after, she became a history and communication double major and began studying the “rich, intricate history of the Near East as well as the greater Islamic World.” In the process, she developed an interest in Turkish folk music, lyrical poems, and mystical writings.

Shields will have a chance to further explore the Turkish language and culture as she has won a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship. The Hilton, NY, native will be placed in Baku, Azerbaijan, this summer at the Azerbaijani University of Languages to learn approximately one academic year’s worth of university-level Turkish during an eight-week period.

The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is a fully funded summer overseas language and cultural immersion program in the U.S. State Department for American undergraduate and graduate students. The State Department encourages undergraduates to study languages deemed critical to national security and competitiveness: Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu.

Shields believes that visual and literary arts, like Maalouf’s novel or Khayyám’s poetry, “can help us transcend the human experience by offering perspectives that we ourselves often cannot see.” Assistant professor of history Yvonne Seale has observed Shields collaborate and maintain friendships with students from different cultural backgrounds and political beliefs, an ability that “comes from her strong communication skills and the emphasis she places on finding common ground with others. Catherine has long impressed me with her determination to know as much as possible of the world outside upstate New York, and indeed of other worldviews.”

Shields’ award is the third Critical Language Scholarship earned by Geneseo students in Turkish. The previous recipients were James Kuras ’09 and Robert Viglietta ’12. Geneseo students have also won three times for Russian (Mark Simeone ’10, Annie Renaud ’18, and Alex McGath ’18) and once for Arabic (Maria Sigalas ’13).

CLS award winner Robert Vigiletta presently serves as a U.S. State Department Foreign Affairs Officer and remembers fondly his summer studying Turkish in Izmir, Turkey, as “a wonderful experience, a perfect ending to my two semesters studying in Ankara through a Geneseo study abroad program.” Last year, he spent a month working at the U.S. embassy in Ankara. “From cementing my interest in Turkey to plugging me into networks of like-minded peers, CLS stands out to me as a decision to which I cannot possibly assign regret,” he said. “I am ecstatic to hear that Geneseo students continue to apply to the program and are awarded for their zeal.”

Shields will live with a host family during the eight-week intensive language and cultural education program in preparation for a master’s degree program in Middle Eastern studies, exploring a range of fields, including history and Islamic studies, as well as learning Arabic and Farsi. Shields is also a U.S. Student Fulbright semifinalist for Turkey and awaiting notification of her final status for that award.

—Michael Mills