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Four South Carolina Students Named Critical Language Scholarship Winners for 2021

National Fellowships and Scholar Programs is excited to announce that UofSC has produced four finalists and four alternates in the 2021 Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) competition. The finalists are Michael Ponessa (Punjabi), Ashley Labrie (Portuguese), Jacquelyn Burnett (Arabic), and Timothy Fritts (Russian).

The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) provides an intensive language study program for U.S. students, funded by the US Department of State. Participants study one of 15 critical languages for approximately 12 weeks over the summer. Critical Language Scholarships for Intensive Summer Institutes are part of a U.S. government interagency effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical need foreign languages. U.S. citizen undergraduates receive funding to participate in beginning, intermediate and advanced level summer language programs at American Overseas Research Centers and affiliated partners.

Michael Ponessa (class of ’21) is a South Carolina Honors College student, SC Palmetto Fellow, USC President's Scholar, Foot Locker Scholar Athlete and IBM Watson Scholar. He is a Biological Science major and resident of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Ponessa will use his Critical Language Scholarship to study Punjabi. This is the second year in a row that he has received CLS to study Punjabi! He is an active member of Phi Delta Epsilon professional medical fraternity and Active Minds and a college advisor for the Sikh Pre-College Network. Advocate and activist for mental health; including having achieved Gatekeeper and Kognito Certifications; and Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity – including completion of Safe Zone Ally and IMPACT Trainings. After graduation from UofSC Ponessa plans to attend medical school.

Ashley Labrie (class of ’21) is a UPS Global Scholar, Sims Scholarship and Freeman Scholarship recipient studying International Business, Finance, and Management from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the first UofSC student to receive the Critical Language Scholarship to study Portuguese. Labrie is currently the President of the Diversity & Inclusion council in DMSB and a member of the IBEA cohort program. She is also very active in community service and engagement and is currently volunteering as a college counselor at a local high school through AmeriCorps. After graduation, Labrie plans to pursue a career in banking and eventually work in the rapidly expanding field of international development.

Jacquelyn (Jackie) Burnett (class of ’23) is a McNair Scholar and South Carolina Honors College student studying Global Studies and Geography from Waxhaw, North Carolina. She has received the Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic. Burnett is highly involved on campus as a University Ambassador and the co-creator of a podcast called Seeking Refuge, through the Carolina Global Scholars Program. She also participates in undergraduate research pertaining to global ethnolinguistic conflict with the Language Conflict Project. Specifically, Burnett has researched the competition for linguistic dominance between English and Spanish in Belize and is currently drafting an encyclopedia entry on the treatment of Maya languages in Guatemala. After graduating from UofSC, Burnett plans to pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State.

Timothy Fritts (class of ’23) is a South Carolina Honors College student majoring in International Business and Supply Chain and Operations with minors in Spanish and Russian from Dalton, Ohio. He has received the Critical language Scholarship to study Russian. Fritts is a member of the USC Russian Club, Carolina Finance and Investment Association as well the Gamecock Climbing Club. In addition, he holds the honors of being an Eagle Scout and an International Baccalaureate Diploma holder. After graduation Fritts plans to explore career options in the public sector.

These incredible students were assisted by the University’s National Fellowships and Scholar Programs office ( which provides advisement and support to students competing for national fellowships. 2021 is UofSC’s 15th consecutive year as a CLS winner producing institution, generating 39 total finalists since 2007. The languages represented by our winners are Chinese, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Japanese, and Portuguese. Most CLS programs will be offered virtually in 2021, but that does not take away from the value of this great UofSC win for our four accomplished finalists!

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