FLAS fellowships support Indiana University students in study of world languages, regions
Indiana University alumna Keely Bakken was born in Chicago, grew up in Las Vegas, and chose IU for college on her father’s recommendation to return to the Midwest.
Bakken majored in International Studies and Spanish before earning a Master of Arts in Central Eurasian Studies and a Master of Public Affairs degree.
“What really pushed my international interest was an opportunity in high school to study Spanish,” she explained. “After spending two weeks in Spain and being expected to speak a language other than English, it motivated me to learn more languages.”
Bakken became interested in government work because of family members who worked in government, and because of her love of languages.
“I was looking at Foreign Service careers in the U.S. State Department and the State Department had this list of 10 critical languages and Turkish was one of them,” said Bakken. “I was seeing a lot of students at the time who were learning Arabic, Chinese, and Russian, so I thought I would do something different and start with Turkish.”
In addition to learning Turkish at IU, Bakken studied Tatar, Uzbek, and Russian with the support of Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships from the United States Department of Education. FLAS fellowships also supported Bakken’s M.A. in Central Eurasian Studies from the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Many Indiana University students, like Bakken, are supported by FLAS fellowships and other federal funding aimed at strengthening U.S. expertise in foreign languages and world regions. Indiana University is one of the top FLAS-awarding institutions in the nation.
IU graduates with knowledge of world languages and regions often work in the federal government, international service organizations, as educators, and as business leaders.
Since graduating from IU, Bakken is now a Supervisory Policy Analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. As an analyst on the research team, Bakken monitors and documents religious freedom conditions in her regions of expertise: Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey.
“I have a regional portfolio and I’m responsible for my organization’s work on Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and recently Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine,” said Bakken. “Speaking a couple of the languages spoken in those countries was a huge plus in their decision to hire me.”
Bakken uses her language skills on a regular basis to conduct research, interacting with foreign government officials, human rights activists, and representatives of religious communities.
“Every year we produce reports and make recommendations to the U.S. government, meaning the White House, the U.S. State Department and Congress about steps or policies the U.S. government can take to improve the ability of people to practice their religion or beliefs,” she explained.
Eric Schluessel is another IU alum who received FLAS fellowships. He is now a leading social historian in the study of China and Central Asia, including Xinjiang, the regional home to China’s Uyghur people.
“I owe my whole career to FLAS Awards,” said Schluessel, assistant professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “Because I can read, write, and speak the Uyghur language I am able to do the kinds of research that most scholars coming from North America or Europe are simply not able to do.”
Schluessel’s FLAS awards supported his study of the Uyghur and Uzbek languages. One of his awards also allowed him to spend a year studying intensively at Xinjiang Normal University in Ürümchi, the capital of the Uyghur homeland.
“When I was a student, at the time, IU was the only place in North America where you could seriously study the Uyghur language,” said Schluessel. “It was the only place where you could get a comprehensive multi-level education in Uyghur, led by well trained professional pedagogues who were also very busy developing cutting-edge language learning materials — people like Dr. Gulnisa Nazarova. It was essential to everything I’ve done since.”
Another IU alumna, Emily Stranger, also received FLAS funding to support her education. She is now a regional expertise and cultural instructor at the United States Department of Defense. In this role, she presents regional area overviews to soldiers in the 1st Special Forces Command in Fort Bragg, N.C. to prepare them for missions in various regions of the world.
At IU, Emily Stranger earned her M.A. in Central Eurasian Studies, studied Azerbaijani, Sorani Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Arabic, Persian, Uzbek, Pahlavi/Middle Persian, and is now a doctoral candidate in Central Eurasian Studies.
“I love working with the soldiers,” she said. “There is a lot that academia can offer them about understanding conflict issues in world regions. It is really an honor to work with the dedicated soldiers of our military.”
Stranger’s language and area studies proficiency has been critical in allowing her to access primary sources.
“The thing that shocked me coming into academia is the number of resources in Persian that could add something important to the conversation about different topics that have never been translated into English,” she said. “For example, for my dissertation I’m writing about Iranian grand strategy and there are a lot of journals published by Iranian academics who are writing about these issues at length in Persian, but I rarely see references to these journals in anything I read. So I think language and area studies is critical, because to understand the now, you have to understand the past.”
Stranger says that experts in Central Eurasia and the Middle East are needed more than ever in the U.S. government.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there for people who have unique regional knowledge, especially in government,” says Stranger. “There are also a lot of jobs in international development. When I was applying to government jobs, I always got called back. If you specialize in one of these languages, you will get an interview. Your resume will not get lost in the pile.”
Indiana University is now accepting applications for Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships. IU students in all areas of study are eligible to apply at hls.iu.edu/flas. The application deadline is January 30, 2023 for summer 2023 and the 2023-24 academic year. FLAS-awarding centers at IU include the African Studies Program, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Center for the Study of Global Change, Center for the Study of the Middle East, Institute for European Studies, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Islamic Studies Program, and the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute.