Understanding, persistent, ambitious and determined to create a more tolerant world.
These may sound like lofty goals, but Fontbonne Hall Academy senior Gianna Vazquez has already made significant strides toward making them a reality, winning a coveted and highly selective State Department scholarship to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan for six weeks over the summer. Her goal is to learn more about a culture she has a passion for and discover more tolerance along the way.
“I’ve always had a very passionate interest in the Middle East and always wanted to learn Arabic,” said the 17-year-old Bay Ridge resident, who, along with about 3,000 other people, applied for the grant in September. “I was chosen as a semifinalist,” Vazquez recalled, noting that she “had to go to various interviews with people from the organization and last week, I learned that I was one of 20 to be chosen to go to Amman to learn Arabic. During that time, I will be staying with a Jordanian host family really to get to know the foundations of the country as well as learning the language more easily.”
The State Department will cover the entire cost of her trip and pay her as well.
This isn’t the first time Vazquez has tried to snag a place in such a program. Indeed, she made it to the semi-finals for a diplomacy program in D.C. back in September, but was not ultimately accepted. “One of her great qualities is her perseverance,” said teacher and Chairperson of Fontbonne’s Social Studies Department Breeda Connolly.
“I was disappointed but the passion was very deep and I forced myself to get over it and look for other ways to enrich myself in this field,” Vazquez said, adding that her persistence paid off. “I was so excited. I always wanted to go to this region. I’ve been to the gulf and it’s very different from this region. It will be interesting to understand the humanistic side of the Middle East that the media sometimes overlooks.”
Among Vazquez’s inspirations was a stark story of injustice she read in Time magazine about “a young girl in Afghanistan who was forced to marry. She ran away from the Taliban and her nose and ears were severed and she was left to die, though she ultimately survived.
“I think the most important thing is to understand the people, and their culture and traditions and way of thinking,” she added.
“Through Fontbonne and through the global history courses that I’ve taken, I’ve been interested in the region itself as well as the values that my school instilled in us, like all-inclusive love and unity and respect for all,” Vazquez said. “For example, with Islam, you shouldn’t crucify the entire religion over the actions of a few terrorist groups so I think that is a cause in itself. I’m really passionate about showing there are issues in every group and how we can move on from the past.”
Solidifying her desire to learn, rather than have a traditional sweet 16 birthday party, Vazquez asked her family if she could travel to Dubai with her father. “It was interesting to see traditionalism mixed with the modern aspect of the city,” she said.
Vazquez was accepted to George Washington University where she will double major in Arabic and international relations with a focus on the Middle East and foreign policy. “I would love to work for the State Department one day, in the Middle East and even intelligence agencies,” she said.