UAH students Alex Cox, Josey Severance selected for Critical Language Scholarship, CLS Spark

Josey Severance and Alex Cox
The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program chose two University of Alabama in Huntsville students for courses of study this summer. Alexandria Cox, left, was awarded a scholarship to study Persian in Tajikistan. Josephine Severance received a CLS Spark award to study Mandarin virtually through the Language School in Singapore.
Alexandria Cox | Josephine Severance

Alexandria Cox and Josephine Severance, students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), have been chosen to participate in the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program. Cox was awarded a scholarship to study Persian in Tajikistan. Severance received a CLS Spark award to study Mandarin virtually through the Language School in Singapore, Republic of Singapore. Both courses of study will happen this summer.

UAH, a part of The University of Alabama System, has had five other CLS participants, says Jennifer Staton, fellowship adviser in the UAH Honors College.

“It is getting increasingly competitive,” she says. “Awards were made to fewer than 10% of applicants.”

Both Alex Cox and Josey Severance appreciate Staton’s support during the rigorous CLS application process. Their paths to CLS success began with an Army assignment for Cox and a middle school friendship for Severance.

Alex Cox

Cox studied foreign languages for the first time when her father was in the military and they were stationed in Hawaii. She took Spanish and Japanese in high school and Hawaiian as part of a Hawaiian history class at a local community college.

“I really enjoy learning languages,” she says. “But I never fully got to where I could have a conversation in any of those languages.”

Then she joined the Army – six years active duty, six years Army National Guard – and was given a fresh shot at a new language.

“While in the Florida Army National Guard, I was sent to the Defense Language Institute for Persian-Farsi in 2019-2020. I didn’t pass the proficiency test, but I did pass the course. Persian-Farsi was the first language I felt fully comfortable with. I didn’t become a linguist, but I was very proud of the work I had done and wanted to continue. Tajik just uses a different alphabet than both Afghanistan and Iran, which are the other countries where Persian is spoken. I’m very excited to continue this process.”

Cox was a geospatial imagery analyst for 12 years in the military. Now, she’s an atmospheric and Earth systems science major at UAH.

“I came to UAH specifically because they have a GIS (geographic information systems) concentration with that degree.”

Cox realized how valuable Persian could be in her career while working on an internship project with Dr. Lee Ellenburg, associate state climatologist/research engineer III and part-time lecturer in the UAH Department of Atmospheric and Earth Science.

“The project involves evaluating ecosystem services and sustainable irrigation,” Cox says. “I’ve looked into Tajikistan as a country. It is the poorest country in central Asia. I’m leaning toward taking my work with geospatial applications and my work in the internship with sustainable irrigation and agriculture and then helping these countries that don’t necessarily have the resources in house. We do have these resources here in America. Maybe we can combine that in some way.”

Josey Severance

Severance’s interest in Mandarin began with a best friend who is Chinese American.

“I grew up going to her house a lot, and so I’ve always been interested in Chinese culture and Chinese as a language. When I was in high school, we had the opportunity to take some Mandarin courses that were outsourced from one of the local colleges. I was doing that and doing great. But with COVID and then my high school burning down, my experience studying Mandarin kept getting shut down at every point.”

Severance is a digital animation major who “fell in love with UAH” despite a lack of Mandarin classes. They initially wanted to focus on 2D animation, but the “meat of the program” at UAH changed that plan.

“I’m actually loving the 3D aspect of it and enjoying the technical aspect and computers more than I thought I would. It’s opening up my eyes to what you can do in this field.”

Severance also discovered that animation studios can use more people comfortable with communicating in Mandarin. CLS Spark offered a chance to study it.

“I was talking with Vinny Argentina (UAH associate professor of art – animation and game design) about this CLS program I’d applied to. One of the things that a lot of animation studios do is they outsource some of their animation work to countries in East Asia, and sometimes China is one of them. He was telling me about when he was working in the industry, and one of the main problems they had with this outsourcing was the communication barrier between the employees that they had overseas and the people working in house studios. Having this language experience would really help make the projects run smoother.”

Staton says that Severance’s CLS Spark award could be a good step up to the full CLS study-abroad experience that Cox will have.

The CLS program is offered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as part of an initiative to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity.