Isaak Belongia ’21, a student at Colorado College, has been awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to study Turkish in the Republic of Azerbaijan this summer.
The Critical Language Scholarship, with an acceptance rate of less than 10 percent, is one of the most competitive scholarships in the U.S. and the most prestigious language programs for U.S. citizens. Part of the National Security Language Initiative, the nationally competitive program funds students who study one of the 15 critical need foreign languages.
Belongia says the CLS program in Azerbaijan serves as the ideal prelude to his studying abroad in Germany this coming fall, where his goal is “to write, perform, and promote music within a local setting, becoming a part of a local niche.”
He notes that although Azerbaijan has a centuries-long history with Turkish populations, Azerbaijan today officially has only about 38,000 Turks, whereas Germany has almost 3 million. Germany is home to the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, with Turks being the most prominent minority group in the country.
Before deciding on a music major, Belongia considered majoring in linguistic anthropology or German.
“My musical goal is to immerse myself in local music scenes,” says the Omaha, Nebraska, native. “To understand the music of different traditions, one must understand elements of culture and history that influence the style and the purpose for the music. When unfamiliar music is labeled inferior or exotic, it is often because those who label it so have no context for understanding it. As music is an extremely important communicator of culture and cultural knowledge, I don’t believe the Turkish population in Germany can achieve true recognition if those involved in the German music industry ignore or discredit their contributions.”
He notes that while the Turkish communities in Germany are significant, Turks occupy a separate social status from ethnic Germans as immigrants and foreigners. “I don’t believe I could come to a satisfactory understanding of Turkish culture simply through the German — or American — lens,” he says. “The CLS program allows me to better understand, identify, and recognize the influence of and alterations made upon Turkish music and culture, as it exists in Germany today, and to build a greater appreciation for specifically Turkish musical contributions.”
Belongia spent Block 6 in Australia with a CC Department of Music class called Musical Creation, Cultural Misappropriation taught by Professor of Music Ofer Ben-Amots. While there, he collaborated on writing a composition with Kyrie Newby ’21, and the piece was later performed by one of Australia’s premier ensembles, Ensemble Offspring.
The Critical Language Scholarship is “the perfect way to combine my passion for language, music, and work in diversity and inclusion, and is absolutely integral to the way I will approach my future career as a musician in Germany,” Belongia says.