UM Students Win Prestigious Critical Language Scholarships

UM student Cana Odegaard, who is studying Arabic, has won a coveted Critical Language Scholarship in just her first year in college.

MISSOULA – University of Montana student Cana Odegaard said it’s a long shot, but one day she’d love to work for the United Nations or UNICEF helping refugees and children around the world.

That shot, it turns out, might not be all that long considering Odegaard, who is studying world languages and cultures along with Arabic and international development, has won a coveted Critical Language Scholarship in just her first year in college.

Photo of Kolter Stevenson

UM sophomore Kolter Stevenson will use his Critical Language Scholarship to enhance his Russian. He said UM’s Russian Studies is the best program west of the Mississippi.


Joining her in receiving this competitive recognition is sophomore Kolter Stevenson, who is majoring in management information systems, finance and international business, with a minor in Russian.

The CLS is a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to expand the number of Americans mastering foreign languages critical to America’s national security and economic prosperity. Finalists for the 2022 program were selected from a diverse pool of over 4,500 applicants, representing all 50  states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico. 

Both Odegaard and Stevenson had deep language experiences long before their collegiate studies and said the CLS will do much to accelerate their skills.

Odegaard, from Missoula, spent portions of her childhood living internationally. Her father was in computer programming and traveled overseas with her family, which also was involved in ministry work in Cairo and other parts of the world. Living in the Middle East sparked her deep interest in Arabic.

“The alphabet is fascinating to look at, and the people that I met were so hospitable. It’s how I feel in love with Arabic,” she said.

Stevenson’s family is from Norway, and the Amsterdam, Montana, native has a close bond with his family’s homeland. After two years of high school, he elected to study in Bergen, Norway, to learn more about the Norwegian language and culture. Along the way, he took a course in Russian and developed a passion for the language.

Today, he counts himself fortunate to study Russian at UM, which has the “best Russian program west of the Mississippi,” he said.

“Russian is spoken in many countries, so it’s useful beyond Russia,” said Stevenson, who also spent time in 2019 studying in Moldova through another U.S. Department of State language initiative for youth. “The cultural aspect is beautiful, and a respect for nature is imbedded in the language, which I find fascinating.”

Stevenson said he struggles with every language ­he studies, which includes Spanish, and jokes that he’s not even fluent in English.

This humble attitude belies his “awesome” commitment to his studies, said Clint Walker, UM associate professor of Russian language and culture.

“If you raise the bar, Kolter is there,” Walker said. “He works on a different level and is always challenging himself to be better. Students like him fire you up as an instructor.”

Deena Mansour, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, met Odegaard as a student in Mansour’s Global Public Diplomacy class and was so impressed she offered to write a recommendation letter to the CLS committee.

”For any scholarship program, a commitment to community and leadership are essential. Cana has consistently demonstrated such qualities, even in her short time at the University of Montana,” Mansour said, noting that Odegaard has embraced a role as citizen diplomat.

 “I can always rely on her to ask a thoughtful question that represents herself, our University, and our state well,” Mansour added.

With world conditions in flux, Odegaard said she will do her studies virtually with an institute in Oman this summer. Stevenson recently learned he will travel to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to study at the American University of Central Asia. Both said they’d like to use their language skills someday to live and work internationally. 

That might be owning an environmental business in Estonia for Stevenson. For Odegaard that very well might be for the U.N.

“I really hope to one day go back to some of the countries and talk to refuges and learn their stories in their language,” she said.


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,