Using Language to Make International Connections

Ferris Samara travels to Kazakhstan to represent the United States at Expo 2017 Astana.

by Laura Powers

It’s a warm day in Astana, Kazakhstan. The streets are buzzing with visitors heading to Expo 2017: Future Energy, the latest world exposition celebrating international innovation and collaboration. This marks the 166th year of the quadrennial tradition that made its debut in 1851 in London, England.

Pavilions surround the large globe-like center structure on the Expo’s campus, with representatives from several countries showcasing their latest advances in sustainability and green technology. Among those representing the United States is Ferris Samara, a Mason economics major with minors in Russian language and data analysis.

Samara found himself at the 2017 Expo last summer after a friend sent him the application to serve as a student ambassador for the event. Interested in immersing himself in the Russian language more fully, Samara applied. He had already spent a little more than two years learning Russian but didn’t realize just how vast the Russian-speaking world was until traveling to Kazakhstan for the first time.

“It was really great to go to a country and speak the language that I’ve been learning in school. Applying it in a formal setting was very, very rewarding,” he says.

With about 5,000 visitors at the United States pavilion per day, Samara says he was able to meet people from all over the world and discuss American culture and what daily life is like. In his spare time, Samara says he and the other ambassadors would travel around the city of Astana to experience the food, the people, and other elements of Kazakh society.

Of all the experiences he had while abroad, his most memorable moment was a conversation he had with a student from China. With English as his primary language, and Chinese as hers, the only way for them to communicate was through Russian. Samara said they spoke about the Expo, their likes and dislikes, the challenges each faced in college, why they elected to study Russian, and so on. It was in that moment that Samara saw how much another language opened the door to conversing with and understanding individuals he never thought he’d be able to speak to directly.

Samara originally decided to learn Russian because of his love for chess, a game popular within, and often dominated by, Russia. He learned how to play from his father at a young age, went on to play in high school, and now serves as a coach for elementary school students.

This spring, Samara completed an internship with the global consultancy APCO Worldwide, the company responsible for managing the American Pavilion at Expo 2017, in the office of its executive chairman. Fluent in Arabic and proficient in Russian, he worked on Russian- and Arabic-specific projects that required him to monitor the news, compile media contacts, and develop client proposals, among other responsibilities. There, he says he was able to combine his language skills with his studies in economics and data analysis.

Samara recently received the Critical Language Scholarship, a highly competitive, national scholarship that fully funds overseas study-abroad programs for undergraduate and graduate students seeking fluency in languages deemed critical to national security. He will spend the summer studying at an intensive Russian language institute. Of all the places Samara hopes to visit one day, he will finally be able to cross Russia off his list.

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