Earlier this month, mere days before Manhattan High School student Kolter Stevenson was scheduled to depart for summer study in Moldova, a political crisis erupted at the highest levels of the eastern European country’s government.
It was another unexpected turn in the plans Stevenson made more than a year ago, when he decided to spend his junior year in an exchange program in Norway. It was there that he began to learn the Russian language, and “really developed a knack” for it, he explained in response to e-mailed questions about his international adventures.
His love of the language then prompted him, while in Norway, to apply for an intensive summer language study program through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a division of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs,
Stevenson was one of about 660 students selected from among 3,300 applicants for prestigious, all-expense-paid scholarships for overseas study of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Turkish, or – as in Stevenson’s case – Russian.
Feeling confident in the security of the program, Stevenson didn’t let the Moldovan political situation keep him from following through with his plans. Last week, after returning from Norway to spend just three days at his Manhattan home, Stevenson arrived in Moldova, moved into 1950s-era Soviet bloc housing with a host family, and began an intensive, immersion language and cultural program with 25 other American students.
The political unrest is quieter but still simmering since Stevenson’s arrival, and he writes that “there are sporadic protests every now and then.” Overall, he said his impression of the nation that many Americans have never even heard of “is that it certainly is a country in transition from the collapse of the Soviet Union to becoming a more developed country.”
Observing political events will be just part of the 17-year-old’s educational experiences in Moldova, which is bordered by Romania on the west and by Ukraine
on the north, east, and south. He spends five hours every morning in intensive language classes, and afternoons immersed in various cultural activities. He and his fellow students are allowed to communicate with their families back home only through e-mail, according to his mother Andrea Stevenson. But even without hearing his voice, Stevenson’s enthusiasm for the experience comes through loud and clear.
“I also wanted to go because I really like the idea of exchange and wanted to take advantage of any opportunity I could get to do it again after I left Norway,” he writes.
While Stevenson writes that it is difficult to compare Norway and Moldova because each has a very distinct culture, he says he has noticed that unlike Americans, people in both Moldova and Norway never really say “hello” to one another or smile when they are on the bus or in public.
In addition to learning about other cultures and customs, it also is “an awesome experience to share your culture and where you come from,” Stevenson writes. Particularly in Norway, people were interested in hearing more about Montana, which was a common destination for Norwegian emigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Stevenson will be multi-lingual when he returns to Manhattan High this fall to begin his senior year. He expects to be semi-proficient in Russian by the time he returns to Montana in early August, then he will continue pursuing fluency through online courses. He also plans to maintain his Norwegian by reading and speaking often with his friends in Norway.
Stevenson hopes to use those languages, as well as Spanish, in his future career. (He plans to major in International Business after high school.) As for where he ultimately hopes to live and work, the ski racer wrote that his time in Norway solidified his desire for it to be in a “polar region.”
Stevenson’s goals pair nicely with the NSLI-Y mission, as described in an agency press release, “to improve Americans’ ability to communicate in select critical languages, to advance international dialogue, and increase American economic global competitiveness.”
While Andrea Stevenson “certainly would have like more time for him decompress,” between his overseas adventures, she said she is at the same time happy for her son to have this opportunity.
She said she believes Kolter is the first Manhattan High student to complete a full-year exchange, and she is grateful to the school administration for working with him to make it possible.