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What is the National Security Language Initiative for Youth?

Pre-college experiences are an enriching chance to boost your academic skills outside of your school’s coursework. Beyond growing your academic credentials, these programs have the chance to increase your competitiveness as a college applicant. You’ll show initiative in identifying and applying to programs, high academic competence from acceptances to competitive programs, and commitment to specialized academic focus.

Language programs as a group can be particularly noteworthy, as they demonstrate a passion for understanding cultures outside of your own, with a broader application than solely developing an area of academic expertise. Typically offering instruction in languages rarely taught in high school, you’ll show your dedication to cross-cultural awareness and connection through seeking out these

This blog will discuss one incredible pre-college opportunity that could change the way you see the world – the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, or NSLI-Y.

What is NSLI-Y?

The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a scholarship initiative spearheaded by The U.S. Department of State, isn't just another language program. NSLI-Y participants earn a fully-funded merit-based scholarship that spans the summer or an entire school year in a foreign country. You’d attend intensive classroom lessons and immerse yourself in your country’s language and culture with a host family homestay.

Collaborating with the American Councils for International Education, the U.S. Department of State both awards and administers these incredible scholarships. Promoting critical linguistic and cultural competency in young Americans, the program hopes to enhance US international relations and global stability by preparing the next generation of students to engage in international discourse with cross-cultural understanding.

What can you expect from NSLI-Y?

Well, it's not just about hitting the books and memorizing vocabulary. NSLI-Y is all about immersing yourself in the life of your host community. The program emphasizes the importance of cultural activities in the NSLI-Y experience: informal chats with locals, trying out your language skills at the market, and learning to cook traditional dishes with your host family.

When can I participate?

Students have the opportunity to participate in NSLI-Y during the school year or over the summer. Though largely consisting of comparable experiences, school year programs require coursework beyond language education to make up for lost classroom time at your home school.

Want to learn more? Let’s dive into the languages offered by NSLI-Y and the countries you might visit!

Which languages can I study and engage with?

The National Security Language Initiative currently offers programs in eight languages: Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian, and Turkish. If you’re passionate about language learning but concerned about your background in a language, there’s no need to worry. No previous experience in your immersion language is required or expected. Though some students will come into the program with a background in the language, you shouldn’t feel nervous about your cohort consisting of fluent speakers. Remember, NSLI-Y is designed to be a learning experience, so your peers will be in the same position as you — working to gain competence in a new language.

Where are NSLI-Y immersions held?

The NSLI-Y immersions are held in countries including Estonia, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Korea, Latvia, Morocco, Taiwan, Tajikistan, and Turkey.

Though these are the predominant locations supported by the program, you may have the potential to study in other countries. However, these opportunities are dependent on circumstances including hosting availability and regional safety conditions.

Something critical to keep in mind is that your preferred language and country of residence is not guaranteed if you’re accepted. Though you can specify a preference for two languages and program sites, your ultimate assignment will take other factors such as availability at each site into account. You may end up being placed in a language program that you indicated no preference for, and the placement decision is final.

Who is eligible for NSLI-Y?

To be eligible to apply, there are three groups of criteria: general eligibility, past experiences, & family employment.

General eligibility criteria include the following:

  • You are a U.S. citizen

  • You will be between the ages of 15-19 during the program

    • Important note: You can apply if you’re under 15 as long as you’ll turn 15 before the program begins

  • You are a current high school student

    • Important note: You can attend the summer NSLI-Y if you apply during your senior year, even if you’ll have graduated before the program begins

  • You have a GPA of at least 2.5/4.0, or comparable if using a different grading scale.

Eligibility based on past experiences is designed to prioritize students who have not had access to similar programs in the past, and for whom NSLI-Y is the only realistic way they could pursue this type of study. On a similar accessibility note, students with immediate family employed — both currently or in the past — by the U.S. Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development or affiliated organizations are ineligible.

You can check out general eligibility requirements here, including the exact restrictions on past experiences and family employment.

There are a few extra requirements to meet if you’re accepted:

  • Obtaining a Visa (& Passport if necessary)

  • Passing a general Medical Evaluation

  • Depending on the country, you may additionally be required to provide proof of immunizations or undergo additional medical exams

What does NSLI-Y cost?

If you’re worried about your ability to afford an extended international immersion program, there’s no need for concern. Participation in NSLI-Y is fully funded, from travel to classroom instruction to cultural events to accommodations in the host country. However, some supplementary costs are not covered by NSLI-Y. You’ll be financially responsible for acquiring passports and visas, receiving medical and document examinations, and any other miscellaneous expenses.

Dates & Deadlines

There are a number of dates that you’ll need to take into account when applying to NSLI-Y relating to the length & timeline of the program and application deadlines. We’ll run through the general dates to keep in mind.

Program Timeline

NSLI-Y summer programs span six to seven weeks, commencing in mid-June to early July and concluding in early to mid-August. School year programs range from eight to ten months, commencing in late August or September.

Application Timeline

The application to NSLI-Y is fairly rigorous. To apply, you’ll require a teacher's letter of recommendation, a written statement from your parents, a school transcript, a list of your awards and activities, a letter of introduction to your host family, and three supplemental essays. More details on the application process can be found here.

NSLI-Y recommends you begin preparing for the application process in August to ensure you have time to research and carefully write your essays, as well as ensure recommendation letters are submitted on time.

Applications are due at 4 pm EST on November 2nd. If you are chosen as a semi-finalist, interviews are held between December and February. After your interview, you’ll be notified if you’re accepted at the end of April.

What Would I Do at NSLI-Y?

During summer programs, students engage in a minimum of 120 hours of classroom language, typically four hours of lessons daily from Monday to Friday.

If you’re taking the school year option, you’ll receive at least ten hours of intensive language instruction per week, and attend academic lessons. The academic programming can include classes at local schools — sometimes in the target language — as well as general academic and enrichment coursework.

In the afternoons, students in both summer and school year programs also participate in cultural and partner activities aimed at enhancing their language skills. You’ll often spend the majority of your evenings and weekends with your host family, gaining additional language practice and cultural immersion.

If you want to look at a comprehensive schedule of what you might be doing day-to-day, NSLI-Y provides examples of a typical day in the program here.

How much do participants learn? Will I become fluent?

Though NSLI-Y participants rarely reach complete fluency, results indicate that you’ll gain substantial competence in the target language.

The program notes that statistics collected since 2012 show that 85% of summer participants have achieved post-program spoken competency ratings from Novice High to Advanced Mid.

Language skills often improve substantially if you attend the academic year program. Collected statistics indicate that school year participants’ outcomes are 85% student achievement of a speaking proficiency level at or above Intermediate High.

You can see comprehensive data on participant language mastery here.

How selective is the program?

NSLI-Y is a prestigious program, so you can expect that the applicant pool will consist of many highly qualified students. Though exact figures vary, the typical acceptance rate is approximately 15%, making the program quite selective.

Due to the U.S. government affiliation, the rigor of the program, and the competitive admissions process, NSLI-Y is well-known to be a highly prestigious program among academic institutions and top colleges.

Pros & Cons of NSLI-Y

Still deciding on whether you want to apply? Here’s a list of some key pros and cons to take into consideration as you make your choice.


  1. You’ll have fully-funded access to international programming and travel: At NSLI-Y, you’ll gain unmatched immersive and classroom learning experiences without worrying about the cost of international travel, which is incredibly rare — most supplemental academic programs are extremely expensive with limited financial aid.

  2. You can pick from a wide range of language programs offered: Even high schools with broader language offerings are often limited to languages of Western Europe with limited exceptions. At NSLI-Y, you can study languages from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and countries across Asia.

  3. You’ll build affiliation with the U.S. government: Though some elite summer programs may boast networking opportunities at top colleges, NSLI-Y takes this a step further. As NSLI-Y is directed by the Department of State and hosts extended alumni programming and events, you’ll build an unmatched connection with governmental departments.


  1. Your host family experience will be highly variable: Though an excitement for total immersion and novel experiences is a definite requirement for enjoying NSLI-Y, some typical standards for host family experiences differ with the program. Though host families are carefully vetted, your family may not speak English or have school-age children. And though you’ll have a bed of your own, you may share a bedroom with family members. If these factors make you nervous, NSLI-Y may not be your ideal experience.

  2. Your exact experience won’t be determined until acceptance: If you’re interested in NSLI-Y to study a specific language, it is common to be placed into a program that may not be your first choice. If getting complete choice in your placement is an essential standard to meet, you may not be satisfied.

4 Tips to Ace Your Application!

  1. Do your research: Despite not guaranteeing your eventual language and country placement, the application asks you to speak about your interest in your top-choice program. If you want to show your dedication to the program (and get your dream experience!), show off your knowledge. What excites you about the language? What do you want to experience in the culture you’ll be immersed in? What does NSLI-Y specify about the program affiliated with your choice? Providing little or incorrect information will undermine your preparation and dedication to NSLI-Y.

  2. Show a true commitment to language learning: NSLI-Y is searching for participants capable of excelling in an environment where you may have very limited contact with English speakers, even at your place of residence. Students are expected to quickly pick up language skills and be unfazed by this unfamiliar environment.

  3. Emphasize the relevance of international relations: As this is not solely an academic program and is linked to U.S. goals in connecting to foreign nations and cultures, being a strong language learner isn’t the only priority of the admissions committee. In your application, highlight the relevance of the program to your future goals in fostering international connections.

  4. Reach out to your references early: As NSLI-Y indicates, early preparation will help you succeed. This is especially true for seeking recommendation letters from your teachers and parents. Though you might be careful to get all of your essays written on time, you can’t guarantee the efficiency of others. To make sure you get strong, thoughtful recommendations, you’ll need to give them time to write. Not to mention that showing poor time management won’t reflect well on your ability to handle the intensity of the program!

Overall, NSLI-Y is an incredible initiative unparalleled in the prestigious affiliations, comprehensive funding, and innovative programming it provides. The program is not for everyone — total immersion may be too intense for some, and the uncertainty in placement can be stressful – but if you’re up for the challenge this is an unmatched opportunity!

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.

Image Source: NSLI-Y logo



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