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UIC students win prestigious awards to study language abroad

McGinnis wins third consecutive award

Alicia Ribeiro, a University of Illinois Chicago undergraduate student, will live in Busan, South Korea, this summer thanks to the U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship she earned to study the Korean language.

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UIC graduate student Kendal McGinnis won the same prestigious award last summer and studied Russian. Now she’s earned a National Security Education Program David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship to continue studying Russian in Latvia for six months.

Ribeiro will spend about two months, from mid-June to mid-August, studying Korean at Busan National University. The third-year English major from Columbia, Maryland, is focusing on creative writing at UIC. She is among over 500 students selected from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants from U.S. colleges and universities for the State Department scholarship.

The scholarship gives U.S. undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to spend eight to 10 weeks studying one of 14 “critical” languages. The aim is to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages deemed critical to U.S. national security, economic prosperity and engagement with the world.

Ribeiro chose to study in South Korea to connect with her roots.

“My mom is a Korean adoptee, so it was always a huge fascination for me as well as my family,” Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro said that while Korean wasn’t spoken much in her home, she learned Korean customs and history from her Korean maternal grandparents. She began learning the language on her own, then continued her study with virtual classes through the Korean Education Center and HANA Center in Chicago. After testing into intermediate Korean language classes at UIC, she took several semesters of in-person classes and independent study.

“It had to be through my own efforts of studying that I really came to acquire Korean and be able to better speak with my family,” Ribeiro said. “It’s just created lots of moments of joy.”

As she grew up, she joined her family on trips to South Korea and developed a love for the country, its food and customs, all which motivated her to apply for the scholarship. She has been looking forward to living in South Korea this summer.

“It’s definitely something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, getting to have that full immersion in the language and the culture,” Ribeiro said. “Another part is I really enjoy Korean food. It’s a little different experiencing eating the food there than eating it here.”

She believes the award will facilitate her long-term goal of studying comparative literature. Because she likes reading Korean poetry, gaining a better understanding of the language will allow her to examine original text and compare it with translations.

“I think this trip will really help me solidify Korean,” Ribeiro said. “Even if I don’t get to a point of reading proficiency, this is a step to get there.”

Ribeiro said Hanae Kim, lecturer and Korean basic language coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Kim Germain, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and External Fellowships, helped her during the “extensive” application process.

“I’m thrilled that Alicia gets to spend this summer in Korea via the Critical Language Scholarship program,” Germain said. “And I’m so happy I could advise her through the application. One of the great pleasures of my job is to help great students like Alicia realize their dreams.”

Lisa Malloy, a filmmaker and UIC graduate student, was the second UIC recipient of the Critical Language Scholarship this year. She had planned to study Mandarin in Taiwan; however, she decided not to pursue the opportunity.

Six months in Latvia

McGinnis, last year’s Critical Language Scholarship winner from UIC, spent last summer studying Russian in Tbilisi, Georgia.  She is currently in Innsbruck, Austria, with an English teaching position through Fulbright Austria.

The Boren Fellowship she earned is an initiative of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office. Its aim is to fund research and language study by U.S. graduate students in world regions critical to U.S. interests. She is one of 102 graduate Boren Fellows selected from a pool of 245 students.

McGinnis, from Southern California, is working on her Master of Arts degree in English and will receive $25,000 to study Russian during the 2024-25 academic year. She said she is proud to receive the Boren Fellowship because of its specific commitment to language acquisition.

“Winning the Boren scholarship means an enriching opportunity to continue studying Russian, get a glimpse into the culture of Latvia and develop a broader, more nuanced perception of the East-West polarity in Europe and war in Ukraine,” McGinnis said.

Benn Williams, fellowships and awards coordinator in UIC’s Graduate College, helped McGinnis in the application process and was her advisor for last year’s Critical Language Scholarship.

“Working with Kendal on her applications for prestigious competitions like the Critical Language Scholarship and now the Boren has been simply a delight,” Williams said. “Her enthusiasm for other languages and cultures is infectious, and her ability to process and grow from critical feedback impresses me. She exemplifies what UIC graduate students can accomplish.”

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