Matthew Kinzer and Ariana Burks, both West Virginia natives, are recipients of the highly competitive U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. Kinzer will spend two months in Japan this summer learning Japanese, and Burks will spend two months in Oman this summer learning Arabic (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

Two WVU students awarded Critical Language Scholarship

Two  West Virginia University students passionate about learning a new language and immersing themselves in cultural experiences will travel abroad this summer as recipients of the highly competitive U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship.

The scholarship program seeks to expand the number of Americans studying languages that are essential for the United States’ engagement with the world.

Ariana Burks and Matthew Kinzer, both West Virginia natives, will spend two months learning Arabic and Japanese, respectively.

Burks, a junior double majoring in international studies and geography with a minor in Arabic, will head to Nizwa, Oman. The Beckley native has always been interested in international politics and the idea of cultural immersion. As someone who hopes to have a career with a government agency, including the State Department potentially, she recognized the importance of studying a critical language like Arabic.

“I honestly just started it because I thought it would be fun,” she said. “As I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the Arabic program, I have found that I really enjoy learning about the language, so I think it would be amazing to be able to understand the language and connect to the people. It’s just a big chunk of the world and tremendously different than Western culture.”

Although she is excited to visit the Middle East for the first time, the language immersion is the biggest draw of the program for her.

“In West Virginia, I can go to Arabic classes, but it’s not the same,” Burks said. “I’m not going to be able to speak English for two months, so it’s going to force me to really pay attention and learn. It’s definitely going to force me to learn Arabic. I hope by the time I’m finished with the program I’ll be able to read and understand the language better so that I’ll be able to learn more on my own.”

As someone who loves to travel and has visited two countries through WVU study abroad programs, receiving the Critical Language Scholarship will allow Kinzer to cross off the top item on his bucket list — visiting Japan.

It will also give him the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend.

During Japanese 101 his freshman year, Kinzer was paired with an exchange student named Minato as a language partner and a lifelong friendship formed.

“I was pretty lonely, but Minato became my first friend on campus,” he said. “He introduced me to all of his Japanese friends that semester. I became part of their community. I think that really helped to push me to learn Japanese a lot quicker.”

Kinzer, a Princeton native who graduated in May with degrees in finance and economics, will spend two months in Okayama, Japan, this summer.

Although Minato currently lives in Tokyo, approximately 337 miles east of Okayama, the friends plan to get together.

Next fall, Kinzer will pursue a master’s degree in finance in hopes of becoming a certified financial analyst. With his sights set on working for a large bank, Kinzer knows his time abroad is valuable.

“It will challenge me to have a wider range of beliefs, have a better perspective on what others around the world actually believe in.”

The Critical Language Scholarship program includes intensive language instruction and cultural enrichment experiences. Recipients serve as ambassadors representing the diversity of the United States and build lasting relationships with people in their host countries. They are also expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship and to apply their skills in their future careers.

Burks and Kinzer worked with the WVU ASPIRE Office to apply for the scholarship. Founded in 2006, the office assists students applying for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, as well as students applying for graduate or professional school.

“In our current global context, studying critical languages is perhaps more important than ever,” Cate Johnson, assistant director, said. “Ariana and Matthew are committed to becoming fluent in their respective languages so they can work towards solving our world’s challenges collaboratively across cultures.”

Students who are interested in this scholarship or other nationally competitive awards can contact the ASPIRE Office at and set up an appointment to discuss their options.

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