Making a Tanzania Skype Connection

UM student Matthew Travers wins scholarship to learn Swahili in African nation

Matthew Travers

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi student, who is looking to learn about Swahili culture and find common ground between Swahili and Chinese, has won a Critical Language Scholarship to study Swahili in Tanzania.

Matthew Travers, of St. Louis, is a sophomore who is double majoring in Chinese and international studies with a regional concentration in East Asia. A Stamps Scholar and member of both the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and Croft Institute for International Studies, he also has been studying Swahili since his freshman year.

Neema Loy, the university’s graduate teaching assistant in Swahili, is from a town outside Arusha, Tanzania. Her teenage sister Skypes with Travers and helps teach him Swahili as he teaches her English.

After applying for and winning the Critical Language Scholarship, Travers has an opportunity to meet his instructor’s family.

“I’m really excited to meet her family,” he said. “I would never have anticipated having any connections in Tanzania.”

“The happiest thing is to see a student who is not only interested in learning Swahili in the classroom, but actually wanting to travel to Tanzania, and interact with the Swahili people and be immersed in the culture,” Loy said. “My sister and her friends have been wishing to meet him and other students from Mississippi who are studying Swahili.

“They have been Skyping with each other for language practice. We are all excited for them to meet in person this summer.”

Travers applied for the scholarship with the hope that by immersing himself in Swahili culture, he will also understand Chinese culture better, he said.

“Swahili is not just the language,” he explained. “There is also the culture behind it. I think that understanding the culture is really important to learn the language. So going there is the best way to understand the culture, definitely.”

Travers said he didn’t expect to win the scholarship.

“I was so excited. I mean … I wasn’t really anticipating it,” he said. “It’s a competitive, nationwide scholarship. I was sort of preparing for bad news, and also, being a Chinese major, I wasn’t sure how receptive they would be to me applying for the Swahili program.”

“This is one of the best scholarships for critical languages like Swahili,” Loy said. “I’m proud of him. I’m very proud.”

Outside of learning Swahili, Travers also hopes the program allows him to make connections between Swahili and Chinese.

“It feels incredible being recognized in that way because … in my application, I talked about wanting to find connections between China or Chinese and Swahili,” he said. “Being given this award is also acknowledging that relationship between the two languages.”

After he goes to Tanzania, Travers will be heading to Nanjing University in China at the end of August for his capstone year as part of the UM Chinese Language Flagship Program. He recently was awarded a prestigious David L. Boren Scholarship from the National Security Exchange Program to complete those studies.

While in China, he hopes to get an internship in the city of Guangzhou, which is host to a large African population.

He plans to write his inter-regional thesis on the Belt and Road Initiative. As states, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative forges intertwining economic, political and security ties between Africa and China, advancing Beijing’s geopolitical interests.”

According to the Critical Language Scholarship Program’s website, the program is a fully funded intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. The program includes intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains.

CLS is part of a wider government initiative to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity.

“Obviously, this is a competitive national scholarship, but Matthew is an outstanding student with a clear future career goal,” said Henrietta Yang, co-director of the Chinese Language Flagship Program at Ole Miss. “He knows what skills he needs in order to achieve his goal, so he is preparing himself at every stage. He utilizes the summer before he goes to China to go to Africa.”

This opportunity is also important to him so he can find out what the environment, culture and life in Africa is really like.

“I’m excited to have this unique opportunity to go somewhere that many people don’t really go and to learn the truth behind a lot of the stereotypes of Africa.” Travers said.

After taking Swahili courses originally out of curiosity, Travers said he is grateful for Loy teaching Swahili and for the university offering the language.

“Neema does an incredible job connecting students across the different academic levels,” he said. “She teaches all the classes and each Swahili student has some connection with her.”