Lake Highlands resident Mara Papakostas has always had a way with words, especially long, hard-to-pronounce foreign words.
At just 18, she speaks six languages, and instead of heading off to college, she’s about to embark on an immersive eighth months perfecting her Arabic in Morocco.
Papakostas received one of the 620 coveted National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarships from the U.S. Department of State for 2015-16. Sometimes called “critical language” scholarships, the program takes students with an affinity for language to study the culture and language of countries where American students usually don’t go to study abroad. Instead of Italy or Spain, these students head to China, Russia, Turkey, or in Papakostas’ case, Morocco.
“I decided I needed a language under my belt that’s a critical language in the world,” says Papakostas of her decision to start studying Arabic during her sophomore year at Ursuline Academy.
Her adventure begins at the end of this month, when she’ll move in with a host family in Morocco who have a daughter about her age. During the day, she’ll attend language classes with other American students and study, while at night she’ll live like a Moroccan.
“At night, you’re with your host family, doing whatever they do. If they go to the movies, you’ll be going to the movies, too,” she says. “I think that that is the best way to learn a language.”
It’ll be her second time living in the African nation. Last summer, she took part in another language program to learn Arabic while living with a local family in Rabat. Her younger sister, Deidra, 16, followed in her footsteps by also spending a summer in Morocco learning Arabic. Mara Papakostas links their collective love of language back to their upbringing.
“My dad is Greek, so we traveled a lot growing up,” she says. “Every time we’d go to a foreign country, my mom would enroll us in an intensive language class, so we’d really get fully immersed.”
The Papakostas girls, including baby sister Erin, 14, all attended the Dallas International School where they learned in French. Mara Papakostas also picked up Spanish, Greek and some Mandarin. Ideally, she’ll use those complex language skills for work at the very organization that gave her the scholarship.
“That’s where I see myself in 10 years, working for the State Department,” she says.