Enumclaw teenager Leah Blanchard longs to see the world and make a difference. And the U.S. government has a desire to develop young people who are both fluent in languages and comfortable in parts of the globe deemed crucial to American interests.
Those factors came together during the summer and found Blanchard immersed in the culture of Morocco, living six weeks in the North African country.
It was, she admits, “an eye-opening experience.”
Blanchard, 16, made the trip courtesy of the U.S. government, having received a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship. The program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
She was one of approximately 600 students from across the U.S. who survived a competitive process to land one of the coveted scholarships. Blanchard studied Arabic for the summer, while others were dispatched to countries where they were immersed in the local culture and learned Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian or Russian.
BROADENING A YOUNG PERSON’S VIEW
If the program aims to attract young people who strive to be true citizens of the world and eventually have a positive impact, it succeeded in Blanchard’s case. Among her possible goals are to work for the United Nations, spend time in the field of “conflict journalism” and become an advocate for women’s issues across the globe.
Possessing a worldview rare in teens, Blanchard came by her interest in international affairs naturally.
“My parents had done some traveling before I was born and their passion for travel lives on in me,” she wrote in an email. Knowing that she wanted to travel internationally, she scoured scholarship opportunities. But it was her mother, Laura, who discovered the NSLI-Y program in the fall of 2016.
“It was an opportunity for me to spend six weeks abroad learning a language and culture related to my possible career goals,” Blanchard wrote.
The application was lengthy “and I didn’t have my hopes up to begin with,” she said. But she advanced to semi-finalist status, which meant a second level of applications and a personal interview. She learned she had been accepted in March, “much to my surprise.”
By sending young people around the world, the NSLI-Y program hopes to foster a generation interested in foreign language and culture. The program’s goal is to enhance American interests, giving young people the skills necessary to promote peace while helping the U.S. compete in the global marketplace.
Those things struck a chord with Blanchard, who departed June 28 and made the long-distance trip home on Aug. 21.
PROGRAM TIED TO PERSONAL INTERESTS
Blanchard, who is bypassing the halls of Enumclaw High and, instead, attending Green River College as part of the Running Start program, wasn’t sure what to expect when she headed for a North African nation with a complex history. Morocco is a stone’s throw from Spain, has a heavy European influence and has long ties to America. Inhabitants are nearly all Muslim and the country has produced its share of terrorists on the world stage.
“I was very excited about going to Morocco, but had no idea what to expect,” she said.
She found much more good than bad.
“I got along with so many people,” she said. For the most part, the locals she encountered were “so kind and so gracious.”
They also were curious about America. For many in Morocco, Blanchard said, their view of the United States is shaped by American television offerings.
Her experience was, in part, shaped by her home family. Of the 12 American youth dispatched to Morocco, she said, her host family was the most conservative. Meals were planned around prayers – five times daily – and resulted in dinner being served at about 11:30 p.m. The culture also is heavy on modesty and, when visiting rural parts of Morocco, she was sure to be covered to the wrists and ankles.
Blanchard, in particular, stood out on the streets of Morocco.
“I had a different experience, being blonde and blue-eyed,” she said. Easily identified as an American, the teen was the target of several marriage proposals from Moroccan males looking for a ticket to the United States.
And there was one scary incident where Blanchard had to quickly duck into a business, fearing anger aimed at her due to her nationality.
But that’s the type of thing Blanchard hopes to combat in coming years.
By focusing on international studies, she aims to help “bridge the gap between Muslims and Americans.”
At just 16 years of age, with a Moroccan experience under her belt, Blanchard has learned the dangers of stereotyping.
“Terrorism is a source of shame for a lot of Muslims,” she said. “It affects how the rest of the world understands them.” From her weeks immersing herself in the culture of the North African country, she came to know “there’s a lot of tension between different sects of Islam.”
In the end, “I was beyond blown away by the amazing people and things I learned,” Blanchard said.