For the average student, senior year of high school is a filled with sports games and pep rallies, homecoming and prom, standardized tests and college applications, senior prank and senior skip day. For Sarah Wood, a former Young Scholar and rising College Scholar, her senior year of high school looked very different. Instead of finishing her final year at Madeira in McLean, Virginia, Sarah decided to do an eight-month study abroad program in Morocco.
“I just didn’t want to spend another year in high school!” she said. “But that actually led me to look into other options, and I realized that there existed an opportunity to spend a year studying Arabic, which continues to be my passion.”
Sarah was accepted to the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). The competitive program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and offers fully-funded study abroad programs for high school students to study less commonly taught languages including Arabic, Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Chinese, and Persian.
In addition to participating in a rigorous Arabic program while studying in Morocco, Sarah also became extremely involved with the local Marrakesh youth and local community.
“In starting the troop, I remembered how much I loved Girl Scouts as a little girl and how, looking back, it provided a foundation in so many skills, from public speaking to teamwork,” she said. “I wanted to give that to girls where there was a dearth of opportunities for their empowerment.”
In her trilingual troop (the girls spoke Arabic, French, and English), local girls participated in light-hearted activities like scavenger hunts, fundraisers, service projects, and cooking lessons. Sarah also facilitated discussions on topics such as “women in the media.” She focused on how it made them feel to rarely look like anyone they saw portrayed. “I took the initiative to research how issues such as body image and financial literacy affect young women in Morocco and then taught those topics in a format tailored to a Moroccan viewpoint, not an American one.”
Sarah also became a certified TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teacher and taught weekly English classes to a group of students. “I worked with my fellow students to teach motivated teens who couldn’t otherwise afford English classes,” she said. “Moroccan peers recruited the students from local, underprivileged schools, and we gave them books and started teaching. The center who hosted us has actually agreed to give about ten of the students scholarships to their actual classes so they can continue studying.”
In her application for the Quinn Youth Leadership Award, Sarah wrote, “This experience has not only forced me to become a better public speaker as I stand in front of a room of students for a few hours, but also to become proactive. If I see a test in the book I don’t like, no one is going to hand me a new one to distribute, but I can make a new one myself. I can also call the students who were absent to find out why and provide make-up. To give back in a program with such clear parallels to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has been one of the highlights of my time here.”
She continued her efforts to fully immerse herself in the local community by organizing an event similar to speed-dating in which American and Moroccan participants were able to ask each other questions about their different cultures. Sarah called the event “a smashing success, with many students showing up and most of them staying in touch afterwards, therefore helping me complete my original goal in coming to Morocco—to foster connections among international youths.”
Sarah plans to use the Quinn Youth Leadership Award’s $2,500 to pay for a Hebrew course at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. She plans to save the rest of it, although she may use it to travel to Israel over winter break.
Looking back on her time as a Young Scholar, Sarah said the experience “was incredible. I cannot give the Foundation enough credit for the impact it had on my personal and academic trajectory. They were a source of support and stability, and their clearly articulated goals and interest kept me on the path that has led to where I am today.”
Sarah graduated from Madeira in June and will attend New York University in the fall where she plans to study Middle Eastern studies and Judaic studies. She says she hopes to study abroad in Israel while in college. She is currently interning at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. In her free time, Sarah enjoys reading, watching foreign films, and wandering around the sights of Washington, DC.