Critical Language Scholarship Program | 2020 Alumni Ambassador Year…

2020 Alumni Ambassador Year in Review

Despite the unprecedented challenges prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Alumni Ambassadors remained resilient, resourceful, and engaged through the months, working with the alumni community, applicants, finalists, CLS virtual scholars, CLS staff and others in their communities to share their experiences and represent the program.


In January, 23 alumni of the 2019 CLS Program became the new cohort of 2020 Alumni Ambassadors, representing 14 of the 15 CLS languages and 19 program sites. Selected Alumni Ambassadors came from 22 different U.S. higher education institutions and 17 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. 

Monique Bowie (Turkish 2019) shares her story in an interview

During the first week of March, the 2020 Alumni Ambassadors gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 10th annual Alumni Ambassador Forum, to engage in professional development and training. Alumni Ambassadors networked with CLS Program staff, representatives of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and each other during the event. They learned key components of serving as representatives of the program and enjoyed hands-on workshops on topics such as public speaking, event planning, and sharing the impact of the program with elected representatives. 

Syndey Ward (WA-07) arrives for her appointment with Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07)

On March 5, twelve Alumni Ambassadors visited with their U.S. Representatives’ offices on Capitol Hill. Alumni shared their personal stories about the impact of the CLS Program on their lives. Alumni visited with representatives and their staff from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Of his visit with Congressman John Rutherford (FL-04), Kian Thomas (Japanese 2019) said, “We shared stories of how study abroad has impacted our respective lives and had a fruitful conversation.” Alumni Ambassadors enjoyed the opportunity to thank their representatives for supporting international exchange.


In mid-March as life changed dramatically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alumni Ambassadors found creative ways to engage with the CLS community and prospective applicants despite the new challenges. Kian Thomas (Japanese 2019) used his time at home to reach out to his elected officials and urged other alumni to call their elected officials and those in adjacent districts for meaningful conversations about support for international exchange programs. Milena Djordjevic-Kisacanin (Persian 2019) volunteered her time tutoring students online to maintain their language skills while they were away from the classroom.

Joy Cariño (Indonesian 2019) collaborated with the Mississippi State University Honors College to offer a virtual information session covering the CLS, Fulbright, and Boren programs. The event was well attended with 18 students tuning in to hear about these programs.

Conor McMahon (Chinese 2019) was featured in a “Where Are They Now” series by his alma mater, the University of Buffalo. He spoke in the interview about his experience on the CLS Program, highlighting the immersion experience of living with a host family, and sharing that, of all of the language programs he has participated in, “CLS has been by far the most organized and it pushed me the furthest. If you want to take a step forward in language study, there’s no better way to do it.”

Sydney Ward (Arabic 2019) wrote an article on her blog as a guide for how students should pack for a study abroad program in the Middle East. She drew on her experience on the CLS Program in Jordan as well on the YES Program in Morocco as a high school student. In her article, she discusses clothing choices based on climate and culture, toiletries, electronics, study materials, host family gifts, and other considerations. She also created a PDF packing checklist that students can use when preparing to go abroad.


Beginning in mid-June, Kian Thomas (Japanese 2019) organized a series of virtual “language tables” as a space for language practice for CLS alumni and other language students in Spanish, Persian, Urdu, Mandarin, and Portuguese. Each language table was led by a volunteer speaker of the language, some of whom where CLS alumni. Manuel Melendez (Japanese 2019) led the Spanish Language Table. Kian has been organizing these language tables weekly on an ongoing basis and has found them to be very successful. 

Korean Alumni Ambassadors host a coffee chat

Current and previous Alumni Ambassadors connected with CLS Virtual Korean students during a coffee chat event. Patrick Niceforo (2014 & 2016), Paula Zhang (2017), Hannah Cole (2018), Ramisa Murshed (2019), and Darlene Janice Nieves-Cruz (2019) gave a warm welcome to the soon-to-be new alumni. Joining from Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., the alumni answered scholars’ questions regarding fellowship and scholarship opportunities and resources for continued language learning.

Chinese Alumni Ambassadors Eric Brink (Chinese 2019), Conor McMahon (Chinese 2019), and Kimber Young (Chinese 2019) hosted an informal online video chat with the participants of the summer virtual Chinese program to welcome them to the alumni community.


With the application for the 2020 CLS Program open from mid-August to mid-November, Alumni Ambassadors were busy engaging in a variety of virtual outreach to and support of prospective applicants to the 2021 CLS Program. 

Bridget O'Connor (Japanese 2019) speaks during an information session at Santa Monica College
  • Alumni Ambassadors participated on all but two informational webinars organized by the program. Kaitlyn Johnson (Russian 2019) joined Program Officer Jon Poser for the Russian-specific information session and Sydney Ward (Arabic 2019) joined Program Officer Esha Bera for the Arabic-specific information session. Aisac Accad (Indonesian 2019) shared her experience as a beginner language student at the session for beginning level languages, hosted by Program Assistant Jessica Klink and Program Officer Jon Poser.
  • Kian Thomas (Japanese 2019) spoke to 20 students at a general meeting of the University of Florida Japanese Club to promote the CLS application to its members. 
  • Bridget O’Connor (Japanese 2019) held virtual information sessions with Loyola Marymount University (where she is a current student), University of Hawaii Hilo, and University of Hawaii Manoa, Santa Monica College, and California State University Los Angeles to present an information session on CLS. Bridget also joined Program Officer Syejeong Kim for a virtual information session at Kapiolani Community College. 
  • Joy Cariño (Indonesian 2019) spoke to students online at Japanese and Chinese classes at Mississippi State University about the CLS Program. She shared information about the program and her experience and answered students’ questions about application tips and how to prepare for studying abroad. She also spoke to honors students at East Mississippi Community College.
  • Madeleine Rodish (Arabic 2019) presented multiple CLS information sessions and an essay writing workshop at the University of Arizona in collaboration with the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships.
  • Darlene Janice Nieves Cruz (Korean 2019) organized an online information session for students in Puerto Rico to familiarize them with the CLS Program. Dozens of students attended from the three main campuses of the University of Puerto Rico as well as Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. Throughout the hour and a half session, students asked a multitude of questions about the program and the application process.
  • The University of Guam welcomed Darlene Janice Nieves Cruz (Korean 2019) and Bridget O'Connor (Japanese 2019) at an information session led by Program Officer Syejeong Kim. The Alumni Ambassadors enjoyed the opportunity to meet with students representing the geographic diversity of the U.S. as they joined the session from Puerto Rico and Hawaii, respectively. While sharing the program benefits, Darlene said, “In addition to further developing my Korean language proficiency, participating on the CLS Program helped me to really improve my time management and communication skills. I use these soft skills every day in my new position as a program assistant at an NGO and feel grateful for the lessons I’ve learned on the program.”
  • Nikidrea Rey (Russian 2019) joined Alumni Engagement Officer Liz Sinclair for a virtual information session with Spelman College. Nikidrea spoke about her experience on the program and her advice to applicants.
  • Sydney Ward (Arabic 2019) worked with the Office of Merit, Scholarships, and Fellowships at the University of Washington-Seattle to give an online presentation on the CLS Program.
  • Ramisa Murshed (Korean 2019) and Sydney Ward (Arabic 2019) joined Alumni Engagement Officer Liz Sinclair for a virtual information session with Virginia Wesleyan University.
  • Many Alumni Ambassadors worked individually with applicants to talk about their experiences on the program and support them through the application process.

While the fall CLS virtual institutes were taking place, Joy Cariño (Indonesian 2019), Bridget O'Connor (Japanese 2019), Conor McMahon (Chinese 2019), and Kimber Young (Chinese 2019) organized language-specific Coffee Chat events for CLS scholars participating in the Virtual Institutes to connect with the alumni community. 

Sarah Stackhouse (Urdu 2019) installs Rainworks in her community

Sarah Stackhouse (Urdu 2019), also an alumna of the Rotary Youth Exchange program, has been actively supporting her community and others through her volunteer work as a member of the Eau Claire Morning Rotary Club. She and her fellow Rotarians organized a Nepalese food donation project, raising thousands of dollars to support those in Nepal who have experienced food shortage due to COVID-19. In addition, Sarah recently organized a project in her local community, called R&R: Rotary and Rainworks. This project brought Rainworks, a form of street art that is invisible until it becomes wet, to the sidewalks of Eau Claire, WI. Sarah says, “we were looking for a club service project that would allow us to be socially distanced during the pandemic, while also still doing something to uplift the spirits in our community.” The street art includes images and messages designed to make viewers smile.

To get to know our Alumni Ambassadors, you can read their profiles here.