Language fellowship wants to inspire more Yampa Valley students to travel the world
February 14, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — From Norway to Bolivia, Bill and Jan Dring have been helping young people from the Yampa Valley learn another language — a skill the couple view as seriously enlightening but sorely lacking among Americans.
The Drings began the Dring Language Fellowship in Routt County in 2010, and since then, have provided $12,000 in financial assistance to seven world travelers. The couple originated the program in their other hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, in 2007, where 18 individuals have been granted a total of $31,000.
"Learning another language completely changed my perspective on life — on everything," said Anne Poirot, who was the Routt County fellowship's first recipient.
Born out of the Drings' own love of travel — combined with regret they themselves aren't fluent in more languages — the pair established the fellowship through Yampa Valley Community Foundations as their way of promoting global communication.
"Americans should learn another language and be proficient," said Jan, who worked as a travel agent. "It helps people understand foreign cultures."
Especially "in this day and age," she added, with so much "misunderstanding" between cultures.
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"I don't think you can understand another culture without knowing the language," echoed Bill.
The Drings emphasize the value of traveling abroad, as opposed to simply taking lessons in the U.S.
"Travel makes you question things," Bill said. "And see what we take for granted in our home country."
Awarding up to $2,500 to one or more recipients, applicants must be planning "an international travel experience for the purpose of improving or perfecting foreign language skills."
Today, the Drings are seeking a new group of applicants in advance of the April 6 deadline.
Along with a committee, they will review the applications before choosing the winner or winners. What the Drings most want to see from applicants is a travel plan that emphasizes the study of a language in an individual and intense immersive environment with the goal of fluency, or at least competency.
"We believe that communication between people of the world is not truly possible without common languages," write the Drings on the fellowship website.
The fellowship won't fund school tours or group trips. It is open to current students or graduates of all high schools and colleges in Routt County. It is also open to "Routt County residents who did not attend local schools but who have a strong connection to Yampa Valley."
Jan noted the increasing popularity of students taking a "gap year," either before or during college.
Lindsey Adler, the 2015 language fellowship recipient, said a gap year was always part of her plan. With the help of the Drings, she spent the first half of her year on a trip to South America through a Princeton University program. Adler trekked to remote villages in the Andes in Peru and lived with a host family in Bolivia where she spent four hours a day in Spanish language classes.
"Being open to connecting to people of another language and culture opens a lot of doors," reflected Adler.
The Dring Fellowship gave her both the extra financial help and the motivational push to learn Spanish, she said. Adler's plans for her future include a possible stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador or Costa Rica.
Many of the past winners used the fellowship funds to assist with additional costs as Steamboat Rotary exchange students, like Poirot, who was granted $1,500 in 2011, along with $1,000 given to another Rotary exchange student who went to Italy.
Poirot is the first to admit that Norwegian may not have seemed the most practical choice of languages, and she acknowledges the widespread proficiency of English speakers in Norway.
However it was that trip, and her commitment to the Drings that she would become proficient in Norwegian, which not only gave her an "extra motivational push" while studying in Norway, but helped to shape everything that followed.
"They had a lot of faith in me," she said of the Drings. "And I tried to take that seriously."
When Poriot could have fallen back on English, she pushed herself and others to keep the conversation in Norwegian.
"Learning one language through the fellowship made me want to understand people better," she said. "What you know — and how you speak — changes how you see the world."
Poirot went on to study French and Spanish with a focus on linguistics and anthropology at the University of Colorado, all fed by her 2011 experience as a 17-year-old exchange student in Norway.
In 2015, Poirot spent a year South Africa, where she learned Xhosa and South African sign language while working and continuing her education at the University of Cape Town.
Other recipients have also been shaped by their fellowship experience. The Drings said they discovered a young woman who had spent time in 2013 living with a family in Costa Rica and studying Spanish, "just shipped out with the Air Force as a special linguist."
The Drings keep in touch with many of the past recipients and recently went to lunch with another young woman who spent time in Brazil. They were joined by some members of the U.S. State Department.
"The whole lunch was in Portuguese," Bill said. "We were delighted, but we didn't understand a word."
For more information on the 2018 Dring Language Fellowship visit dringfellowshipyampavalley.weebly.com.