Emily Symmes’ friend answered the phone. They were sitting in a Barnes & Noble, and suddenly Symmes heard her friend speaking Russian.
“I was completely struck by just the sound of it, the uniqueness, how different it was from anything I (had) heard,” Symmes said.
It set Symmes on an unexpected trajectory, one that could lead her to spend a year in Kazakhstan to teach English.
The Forsyth Central High School graduate was recently named one of 13 students at the University of North Georgia as a semifinalist for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program scholarship. The highly-competitive fellowship offers graduate students the opportunity to research, study or teach English abroad for one academic year.
Symmes applied to be an English Teaching Assistant. If selected as a Fulbright finalist in April, she’d spend almost a year in Kazakhstan teaching English.
“To go there and live there and connect with people I might otherwise never have the opportunity to is such a unique experience,” Symmes said.
Symmes had to submit two essays for the Fulbright, including one explaining why she wanted to go to Kazakhstan. Symmes’ answer went back to that phone call she heard while a seventh-grader at Otwell Middle School.
Symmes had always thought of her friend as purely American. Then Symmes heard her speaking Russian, and it sparked Symmes’ curiosity.
Turns out the friend’s family was from Kazakhstan.
Symmes quickly became enthralled with Russian. She’d beg her friend to teach her phrases. She made lists of Russian words during free time in classes. Eventually, Symmes could picture herself studying Russian and pursuing a career as an interpreter or teacher, and when she found out UNG offered a major in Russian, she didn’t hesitate.
“I was like, ‘Yep, that’s what I’m doing, this is a dream come true,’” Symmes said.
Language has always captivated Symmes, she said. Her aunt is Puerto Rican, and she had several Latin friends at Central, so Symmes learned Spanish. As she became more and more proficient, she began to see how learning a language can create deeper connections with people from other cultures.
“It really does bring you together that other ways can’t,” Symmes said.
Symmes’ father also exposed her to the benefits of travel. A former youth minister, he took several mission trips to Guatemala, and so she resolved to study abroad in college.
She chose Russia, of course, and the experience only solidified her future plans. Symmes was one of only three advanced-level Russian-speaking students, and it allowed for more in-depth conversations with her Russian counterparts that created lasting friendships.
If Symmes is selected as a Fulbright finalist, she hopes to visit those friends in her free time.
And it’d all be thanks to one phone call.
“This all started with sitting in a Barnes & Noble and hearing (my friend) talk to her mom on the phone,” Symmes said.