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Critical Language Scholarship Recipient Shares Experience in Russia

Article written by: Elyssa Diamond '18

Chelsea Gibson, a Binghamton University PhD candidate in the history department, spent her summer in Vladimir, Russia as a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient. CLS, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is an immersive language and culture program that sends American college and university students abroad so they can learn one of 16 critical languages in a native-speaking country.

"The CLS program itself is designed to get you as proficient in the language as humanly possible over one summer," Gibson said.

Gibson spent her summer with a cohort of 26 other students, but she spent most of her time with the five other students in her language group. CLS participants are split up into groups based on language proficiency. Gibson, who has been studying Russian for four years, was in the third most advanced group out of four. Everybody who received a CLS in Russian had studied the language for at least two years, but for other critical languages, such as Swahili or Punjabi, students can apply with no prior language knowledge.

Regardless of a student's initial proficiency, CLS participants are expected to adhere to a no-English policy over the course of the eight- to ten-week program. Gibson spoke only in Russian with her host family, her language partner, and the other students in her cohort. Although this was difficult, she said that it got easier once she overcame her fear of being wrong.

"You have to say, 'I'm gonna suck, and I when I say this, it's gonna be wrong, but it's fine,'" she said. "I got used to always being wrong and knowing that there would be someone to help me."

Gibson emphasized the importance of her cohort as a support system. Since she was in class for about four and a half hours each day, she said that she became especially close with the people in her language group, who were her classmates.

"If you don't understand the homework or if you're feeling really stressed or you're bored and you want to do something, you have to come back to these people all the time," she said. "You become really tightknit with the people who are there with you."

Gibson said that the cohort was mostly made up of undergraduate students, and that is true throughout the different CLS programs.

"Out of 27, I was the only PhD student. There were 3 or 4 people who were in a Master's program or had just finished their Master's, so a vast majority of people who get CLSs are undergrads," she said.

Although the program is sponsored by the State Department, one does not need to be interested in government work in order to apply.

"A lot of people who apply want to go into some State Department work, but if you don't want to do that, it also sets you apart," Gibson said. "If you're a lit major who doesn't really know what you want to do, but you're studying Japanese or studying Chinese, if you can convince them that you work well in a group and that your trajectory is one where you can establish mutual interactions or relationships or understandings between these country, then you have a really solid footing."

Thanks to CLS, Gibson improved her Russian language skills and gained a new appreciation of the Russian people and culture. As she finishes up her dissertation, she hopes to use more Russian sources in her research. She also plans to travel back to Russia soon to visit her host family and the other people she met.

Applications for the 2018 CLS program are due November 15. If you are interested in applying, Chelsea is hosting an information session on October 4 at 4pm in UU215. You can email Chelsea with any questions at or stop by the Office of External Scholarships, located in room UU260.


Graduate Student Receives Critical Language Scholarship to Russia 

Chelsea Gibson
History Graduate Student

Article Written by: Brendan Zarkower '17

The Critical Language Scholarship Program is an intensive program that provides an opportunity for students to explore foreign cultures and strengthen their skills in a language which is critically important to the United States. Recipient Chelsea Gibson, a third-year PhD candidate in the history department at Binghamton University, will travel to Russia for eight weeks this summer with funding from the program.


Chelsea Gibson has a unique perspective on American history. Her research focuses on the interactions between Russian revolutionaries and the American public from the late nineteenth century up until the Bolshevik Revolution, with a particular focus on radical Russian woman.

Chelsea graduated from North Georgia University with a degree in history before completing her master’s degree at Binghamton in 2013. She has since been working on her PhD and is looking to complete her dissertation this year.

In addition to her success in receiving the CLS, Chelsea has also been awarded other prestigious scholarships in the past. She received a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Scholarship, another federal government scholarship that funds foreign language studies.

While in Russia, Chelsea will study at the Kora Institute in Vladimir, approximately 100 miles east of Russia,  and staying with a host family. She says that a great part of the CLS program is that you aren't put in Moscow or St. Petersburg where there are many English speakers, but are instead placed in more immersive environments, which is more conducive to language learning.

Earlier in her studies, Chelsea learned some German, but she pursued Russian when she arrived in Binghamton because of her interest in Russian history. She says that studying a foreign language as an academic has set her on a unique trajectory.

“In grad school you get funneled into a specific path, so learning russian was a little bit like a way get off the path, in a good way,” Chelsea said. “It was really important for me to do, even though it made my track a little bit different, especially regarding publishing.”

For any students interested in applying for the scholarship, Chelsea has some advice.

“Thinking ahead was really useful. I had already done two intensive language programs which set me up for this bigger award. Sometimes just looking and seeing and saying I really want to apply for this. Do things that will get you prepared for this, volunteer work that might help you, something that will make you more appealing in the future when you apply.”

She also said that the videos and information on the official CLS website [] were instrumental in the application process.

She said she learned that the reviewers of applications value honesty and earnestness.

"I talked about my experiences in my previous programs and admitted that I got frustrated feeling stupid in another language when I know I can operate at a much higher level in English.  I tried to be open about my flaws.  They want to know you're committed and that you have self-awareness."

Applications for the summer 2018 Critical Language Scholarship are due in November. For more information, visit the Office of External Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards in UU 260 or visit the CLS page online [].

Other Recent CLS Recipients 


Last Updated: 9/28/17