Maxwell student reflects on Critical Language Scholarship experience

November 10, 2017 | By Kelly Homan Rodoski 

Giovanna SaccoccioGiovanna Saccoccio is a senior majoring in international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and in public relations in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Last spring, she earned a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship that allowed her to study Turkish intensively through an immersive experience abroad in Azerbaijan this past summer. She worked with the University’s Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising (CFSA) to prepare her application. Below, she reflects on her experience abroad and how it has influenced her.

What initially drew you to study Turkey and its relationship with Europe and the Middle East?

I have always been fascinated by Turkey, and I dreamed of visiting Istanbul since I can remember. My interest was initially related to art and history (two of my biggest passions), but as I came to college and became more interested in studying the Middle East, I started looking at Turkey in a different light. I think Turkey’s politics are extremely interesting, especially as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East that is becoming increasingly less secular. I also felt that studying Turkish would allow me to set myself apart and perhaps start a more specific career path in international relations.

Tell us about your experience this summer studying Turkish through the Critical Language Scholarship program. Where were you based?

I was based in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the U.S. state department does not allow students to go to Turkey because of security concerns. However, Baku turned out to be the most interesting place I have ever visited. It is a city in transition between tradition and modernity in a country with a lot of inequality that is influenced by Azeri, Soviet, Iranian and Turkish cultures. It was not the most welcoming environment for a foreigner. It took a lot of adapting and compromising, but it was still the best and most rewarding challenge I have ever been through.

How were you engaged in learning the Turkish language and experiencing the Turkish and Azerbaijani cultures?

I went to school for four hours from Monday to Friday. In the afternoons, we often went on field trips to museums to learn about Azerbaijani culture. We also attended conferences on Azerbaijani and Turkish linguistics, as well as traditional music and dances. Other days, we were left free to roam the city, which was my favorite activity. It is incredible how much you can learn about a place just by people watching and talking with random people on the street, even with a very significant language barrier. My main point of connection to Turkey was my language partner, a Turkish Kurd from eastern Turkey. He taught me a lot about Turkish and Kurdish culture, and I was able to discuss the political issues of the Middle East and the Kurdish territories with someone who has witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. Thanks to him, my Turkish also progressed tremendously.

I mostly experienced Azerbaijani culture, which is significantly different from the Turkish one. I still appreciated every part of learning about a place that I would have probably never visited otherwise. I learned a lot from my host family. While my host mom could speak neither Turkish nor English, we still cooked together, looked at pictures and watched TV together. By the end, we were able to hold conversations, and I have never felt so proud or happy by connecting with another human being. She was the sweetest person, and I miss her a lot. I became very close with my host sister, who was the only one who spoke Turkish and could speak a little bit of English. We are the same age and extremely similar, so she showed me around Baku and we hung out with her friends.

I also learned a lot about the country by traveling. I mostly traveled to the north in the Caucasus, on the border with Russia. It was like being thrown into a completely different dimension, as the rest of the country (apart from Baku) is still extremely traditional and, in some ways, underdeveloped. Most people still felt very close to Russia and only speak Russian, which was extremely interesting.

Her experience in Azerbaijan convinced Giovanna Saccoccio that she wants to pursue a career working for peace. How have you incorporated your experience this past summer into your current studies and research?

This experience changed my mindset, and changed how I view many things. My interest in Turkey is reinforced, and I have been trying to develop it through research and classes. I have also become interested in Central Asia, a region I had known nothing about before CLS, and energy issues. Most of all, this experience has made me realize what I want to do with my life, as it got me interested in issues related to democracy, development and rule of law, which I have been exploring in a master’s class I am taking.

Do you plan to pursue a career in foreign affairs? How do you see yourself continuing to draw on this experience?

I plan to continue to draw on this experience and how it changed my mindset in my future career. In fact, I have realized that I want to work in peacebuilding in post-war countries, specifically on issues related to reintegration and locally-owned processes. This experience has also helped me develop cross-cultural skills and relate to people from other cultures who I cannot necessarily talk to fluently.

The Critical Language Scholarship Program is supported by the U.S. Department of State and is part of a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Visit for more information.