When Caitlin Cotteleer was in middle school, she completed a class project on the Middle East and discovered a new passion, eager to study more about the region, culture and language.

“I’ve always been drawn to Arabic and the Middle East,” the 16-year-old said. “It’s hard to describe.”

Now wrapping up her junior year at Episcopal School of Acadiana, that passion is being cultivated with an intensive language and cultural scholarship program funded through the U.S. Department of State.

Caitlin has been accepted into the National Security Language Initiative for Youth’s summer program to learn Arabic over eight weeks.

The program is part of a U.S. government initiative to foster international cooperation by ensuring that Americans have the necessary linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to effectively communicate globally, according to its website.

It focuses on “critical” foreign languages and cultures and provides merit-based scholarships to help teens to learn, and hopefully spark a lifetime interest in, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian or Turkish, according to the program.

The initiative usually provides overseas language-study opportunities, which would send Caitlin to Morocco or Jordan to study, but this year she’ll be connecting with native Arabic speakers via Zoom and taking virtual excursions to connect what she’s learning to the real world. 

The virtual experience will still be immersive, with two-hour intensive language training five days a week, plus two to three hours a week for cultural excursions and connections. Through her computer, she will get to see and explore new places and speak with locals on the ground.

That cultural connection is extremely important to her and the central mission of the program.

“Language doesn’t exist within a vacuum,” she said.

She also can’t wait to experience some new recipes, as her family loves to cook. 

‘The confidence to dream big’

Originally from northern Illinois, her family moved to Broussard when she was in fifth grade and she became an ESA Blue Gator.

There she is currently studying French IV honors and Middle Eastern history, as well as other AP and honors classes. She also is a member of ESA’s Discipline Council and a peer tutor.

“Both her success at language studies and her leadership roles helped her gain acceptance to this highly competitive program,” school spokesperson Angie Delcambre Broussard said.

Caitlin set this goal years ago, first applying to the program as a freshman. About 3,500 students from across the U.S. apply each year, and she said she didn’t make it past that first round.

She tried again her sophomore year and was named an alternate, but third time was the charm for her. She made it to the interview round this year, connecting with judges virtually in April. Finally, she received an email last week congratulating her on being awarded the scholarship.

There might have been a shriek, her family admits.

“To say we are thrilled and proud is an understatement — proud of the achievement, of course, but also of the demonstration of persistence, setting a goal and working on it,” said her dad, Chris Cotteleer.

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He and his wife, Tracie, weren’t the only ones rallying behind Caitlin for this.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of work, and we are incredibly grateful for teachers who foster a love of learning and the confidence to dream big,” Tracie Cotteleer said.

A major supporter was Caitlin’s advisor, Garrett Rosen.

“He’s been my advisor since I was a freshman and has been very patient and encouraging with me through this,” the student said.

Rosen dismisses the size of the part he played in this process, as he felt like Caitlin didn’t need the usual help figuring out essay themes or meeting deadlines.

“Applications like this are kind of difficult to prepare for, and students usually need help getting started and managing all of the moving pieces of the application process,” Rosen said. “Caitlin needed none of that. She’s one of the most responsible and thoughtful people I know.”

Instead, he served as a “touchstone,” he said.

“My work in this process consisted of telling Caitlin that she was on the right track because, well, she always was,” he said.

‘A first step in a journey’

Caitlin and others selected for NSLI-Y are being grouped, and she’s preparing for orientation in mid-June before the eight-week program kicks off.

“I get to do some prerequisite work to introduce myself to the language,” she said. “I’m excited to learn it, but I know it will be a big learning curve.”

Rosen has seen Caitlin’s commitment and drive to learn during this process, qualities he believes make her deserving of this opportunity.

“She’s an exceptional person, committed to understanding the world’s issues and taking action to address them,” he said. “Her drive to learn about other cultures — and especially to learn languages — has been central to her intellectual life since I’ve known her.”

He expects that will only grow over this summer.

“This program will teach her invaluable things about how communities engage with each other, and will give her a head start on one of her dreams: leadership through international relations,” he said. “She’ll bring that well-earned wisdom and knowledge to any leadership role she occupies in her community.”

For Caitlin, she says this is “a first step in a journey.”

“I’ve had this call to service, specifically foreign affairs,” Caitlin said. “I don’t know exactly where it will lead me, but I’m 16, so I’ve got time. I’m just excited to be on this journey.”

Contact children’s issues reporter Leigh Guidry at or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.

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