A Dream Comes True: Novo Collegian to Study Punjabi in India

At New College, the world really is our classroom.

Take the example of Ilene Gillispie, a fourth-year Religion student who was awarded a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to study Punjabi in Chandigarh, India, the capital city in the northern region of Punjab, during the summer of 2012. The Alexandria, Va., native was one of only 12 undergraduate and graduate students selected to study in Chandigarh, where she will live with a host family and study Punjabi intensively for 10 weeks. She and the other students will have cultural excursions as a group and also be given the opportunity to travel independently. Gillispie hopes to visit many sites of historical importance to the Sikh religion.

At New College, Gillispie’s studies have concentrated in Indian religions, and she is currently writing her thesis about the role of women in the Sikh religion. She studied abroad during spring 2011 at Madras University, located in Chennai, South India. She also did thesis research in North India during January of 2012. After graduating from New College and participating in the CLS program, she plans to enroll in graduate school and to attend seminary in preparation for ministry in the Unitarian church.

“I feel so blessed to have been given this opportunity,” says Gillispie. “Since learning about Sikhism in a course at New College during my first year, it has been a dream of mine to learn Punjabi, and now it's one that will come to fruition. I hope to use Punjabi language in my efforts to educate others about the Sikh religion. It's the world's fifth-largest religion, and yet many people don't know about it.”

Gillespie explains that after 9/11, Sikh identity became a liability for its practitioners, who have been subject to violence and hatred due to their unique appearances. She hopes to raise awareness about “the beautiful, ecumenical spirit” of the Sikh religion. “This has been a goal in my thesis work and will be an aim in my ministry as well,” she says.

“It's a really unique opportunity due to the small number of participants and the intensity of the language program, since it's equivalent to a year of academic study,” adds Gillispie. “While I didn't have the opportunity to study Punjabi language at New College, my professors were very supportive of my interest in this field. I was given the chance to write many papers on topics relating to the field of Sikh studies and even lectured this past fall to students learning about Indian religions.

“I have been given so much at New College and during my time in India,” she concludes. “I look forward to using the skills I'll acquire this summer to give something back to the many people who have helped me on this path.”

Gillispie is the third student to win the top government grant over the last three years. Anamica Bedi won a Critical Language Scholarship to study Punjabi in Chandigarh in the summer of 2011, and graduating senior Sarah Brown was awarded a CLS to study Chinese in China in the summer of 2010. Like her predecessors, Gillispie received a strong recommendation from her faculty advisor, humanities professor John Newman. It's another example of how our collaborative learning environment results in professors who really know their students well.

The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsors the Critical Language Scholarship Program to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. Participants cover approximately one year’s worth of language study during the summer institutes, which last from eight to ten weeks and include four to five hours of language instruction each day, five days a week. The program is administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the American Councils for International Education.

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