By the time Jenny Ostrowski set foot on campus, she’d already learned German at her Superior, Wisconsin, high school and studied abroad near Frankfurt. In a gap year, she picked up Spanish while working as a teaching assistant in rural Ecuador. Not surprisingly, her time at UW has been a whirlwind of travel and languages — an ideal mix for this senior majoring in International Studies and African Languages and Literature.
Over the past four years, the possibilities for language study have exceeded my expectations. I have studied abroad in Jordan and China, participated in internships in Ecuador and Uganda, completed a research project, also in Jordan, volunteered in Greece, and engaged in several internationally focused student organizations here on campus.
This past year, I spent about seven months studying Arabic in Jordan, and for part of last summer I also found myself volunteering at a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. As you may know, Lesvos, located near Turkey, has been an important point along migrants’ and refugees’ journeys to Europe.
It probably comes as no surprise that when I was working in the camp, I applied my Arabic skills daily, helping to communicate everything from housing disputes to medical appointments. But I was baffled to find that my Spanish skills were also in high demand. This was because a significant number of people from Latin American, many of them victims of human trafficking, were passing through the camp. Because very few translators — many of whom were refugees themselves and volunteered for the job — could speak Spanish, I found myself dusting off my gap year Spanish skills to help aid workers identify and address trafficking cases.
Many of the Spanish-speakers I worked with in the camp — mostly women who had been almost completely isolated from family and friends — simply wanted to chat, to let me know what was on their minds, to connect with another person and engage in the simple pleasure of idle conversation and tell me that they were really craving fried chicken, that their roommates were annoying, or that they really missed their kids today. And I am so, so glad that because I’ve studied languages, in addition to helping the aid workers with their very important work, I also go the be the person who listened.
I came out of this experience with a renewed sense of purpose and of responsibility to use language skills in a way that is useful and, when appropriate, to be of service to others.
While a willingness to step into the unknown is often a critical first step, most of what I have accomplished as a language learner is the result of long nights of studying and, of course, the generous support of professors, mentors and scholarship donors along the way. For me, success is the product of thousands of flashcards, hundreds of awkward conversations and dozens of tedious application forms. My favorite example of this is a program that I have applied for four times and been denied three times — but this summer I will finally be traveling to Morocco to study Arabic for 10 weeks.
Thinking back to my first German class, I never could have predicted — or even imagined — the ways in which my experiences would build on one another. I am struck by the richness languages have brought into my life, from the host families who have become like real families to developing a greater sense of purpose.
Story by College of Letters & Science News. This account is adapted from a speech that Ostrowski gave at World Languages Day on April 12, 2017. The annual event, organized by the UW Language Institute, brings in high school students from across Wisconsin to engage in presentations, performances and creative workshops that highlight the value of studying languages.