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A Star Talks

Silhouette of Telescope.Laura Murray explains to Mary Thrond and Daniel Ward how her fascination with Chinese culture and history led to a lifetime of achievement and adventure, including the creation of the STARTALK program, which has acted as a catalyst for advanced language acquisition in the U.S. Since 2006, STARTALK has provided learning opportunities in critical languages for students (K–16) and professional development for teachers of critical languages, primarily through summer programs. Currently, programs are being implemented in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu.

Dr. Laura Kaplan Murray has been a career employee of the National Security Agency since 1985. She has had diverse experiences in many facets of language, including operations, management, training, research, foreign affairs, and national-level language policy, and has served in various locations in the U.S. and overseas. From 2006 to 2008 she served as the director of the Foreign Language Program Office (FLPO), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). While at the ODNI, she launched the STARTALK program, which provides introductory language training for K–16 students, and teacher professional development, in eleven critical languages. In 2010, Dr. Murray was awarded a National Intelligence Certificate of Distinction for her role in the creation of STARTALK. Dr. Murray is currently the technical director of the Center for Language and Area Studies, National Cryptologic School (NCS). Her responsibilities include developing and implementing strategic initiatives on behalf of language- and area-studies training and fostering collaboration between the NCS and the broader government language- and area-studies community.
Since 2006, STARTALK has provided learning opportunities in critical languages for students (K–16) and professional development for teachers of critical languages, primarily through summer programs. Currently, programs are being implemented in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu. STARTALK participation has grown to over 5,000 students and over 1,500 teachers per year as it continues its mission of offering creative and engaging summer experiences that exemplify best practices in language education and language-teacher development. Since its inception, STARTALK has formed an extensive community of practice that seeks continuous improvement in such criteria as outcomes-driven program design, standards-based curriculum planning, learner-centered approaches, excellence in selection and development of materials, and meaningful assessment of outcomes. STARTALK has developed from an idea for summer language camps for students and teachers into a program with national impact in just ten years.

I was an undergraduate at Rice University during the Vietnam era, and like many young people at that time, I thought a lot about war and peace issues, pondering why the U.S. had been drawn into so many wars in Asia. I decided to go into the field of Chinese studies because I thought that if you were going to understand Asia, you had to start with China, as the biggest country in the region. This was a purely idealistic decision. I had taken some courses on Chinese history, but I had never been to China. My goals were vague; I only hoped I would be able to make a meaningful contribution in some way.
I applied to the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted by the Oriental Studies Department, but I didn’t get a scholarship and couldn’t afford to start my studies. I deferred my admission for two years and worked as a medical secretary. After I had saved enough money for one semester, I applied again, and Penn reactivated my admission. On my last day of work, I received the thrilling news that I had been awarded a full tuition scholarship with a stipend. My new career was off to an auspicious start.
My program included heavy emphasis on Chinese language, history, philosophy, literature, and research methods, and three years of Japanese. Fortunately my fellowship was renewed every year for four years of full-time coursework. My daughter was born during my last semester, but I still had to pass my comprehensive exams and write a dissertation. Around the time my daughter was two years old, I passed my comprehensive exams.
After I passed the exams, my advisor, Dr. Susan Naquin, sat me down for a serious talk. She said, “You know, if you’re really serious about this as a career, you really need to go overseas for a while.” I was accepted at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies in Taipei, more commonly known as the Stanford Center, and I uprooted my family and we all went to Taiwan.
I had originally received a partial scholarship from the Stanford Center covering half of the tuition. We thought we had brought enough money to get settled, but after we arrived in Taiwan I discovered that I had received poor advice and we were not well prepared. My husband and I were running around getting part-time jobs teaching English just to get by. I had no idea how we would manage when my full-time classes started. After about a month of this, I wrote a long letter to my advisor explaining that I was in a very challenging situation, with no specific expectations of what might happen, but a few weeks later I got a telegram from Penn—this was in 1981—and the telegram informed me that Penn had awarded me another fellowship. I ended up getting two more years of full support from the university, which covered tuition and a small stipend, while I was in Taiwan. All my financial support was through National Defense Foreign Language grants.
My daughter was four and a half years old when we went to Taiwan. I had enrolled her in a neighborhood kindergarten, where she was the only non-Chinese student, and she picked up Chinese very quickly. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was going on with her language learning, because she was speaking English to us at home. After we had been in Taiwan for a few months, I came by to pick her up at school one day a little earlier than usual. When I walked in, I was stunned to see her standing in front of the class telling a story about three little kittens in perfect Mandarin Chinese. It just completely blew me away.
While in Taiwan, I was going to school full time, working a part-time job, and working on my dissertation research. My topic was a multidisciplinary study of factors affecting population growth in late imperial China, through a local history of the area around the city of Xi’an. A few months before I was due to return home, another great opportunity came my way. Penn was sponsoring its first-ever summer program in mainland China, in the city of Xi’an. I spent a glorious month in the place I had been studying for ten years.
At the end of that summer, I returned home and focused on writing my dissertation. After about a year of intense work, by the fall of 1984, I was making good progress. However, I was also worrying about getting a job. There were few university jobs available for historians of China at that time. This was during the Reagan era, when there was a big defense buildup. One Sunday morning, I was sitting at home reading the New York Times careers section and I saw an article about jobs in intelligence, which I hadn’t previously considered. But the article mentioned demand for people with foreign languages and overseas experience, and I thought, “I think I have these qualifications.” I applied just to see what would happen.
I sent a one-page resume with a one-page cover letter to three places: the NSA, the CIA, and the DIA. The article had conveniently supplied mailing addresses. What happened next was completely unexpected. Within less than a week I was contacted by the NSA and the CIA. I completed lengthy applications, did personal interviews, went out for language testing, and eventually received job offers, at the same pay grade, from both agencies. However, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do at either agency. I accepted the NSA job offer primarily because the CIA wanted me to go into an intensive one-year training program to be an operative. I asked the interviewer where the training was, and he said, “Well, we can’t tell you that. You can go home for most weekends, except during your twelve weeks of para-military training.” I had a seven-year-old at home, and I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” The NSA didn’t give me many details either, but they did tell me it would be a 40-hour work week and I didn’t have to travel if I wouldn’t want to—points that are very important when you have young children. I ended up taking the job at the NSA, and thirty years later I’m still there.

Long story short, I’ve actually never been a language instructor. I spent a lot of time studying languages, but my background was not in language pedagogy. How I ended up doing what I’m doing now and starting the STARTALK program was an odd chain of events. At the NSA, for the first third of my career there, I was working in operations and using my language primarily for reading, translating, analyzing, and writing reports, often on matters that tracked with hot topics in the news. I even had the opportunity to prepare and present a major briefing on China for the director of the agency only two years into my career there, which was unusual. I felt I was seeing history being made. Then, as often happens, I was moved up to management. Initially I was managing a small team of analysts, but within a few years I was managing much larger organizations.
As things progressed, I had a number of amazing opportunities, including jobs in Japan and Hawaii. In 2003, I was selected for a position as the deputy dean of the language-training department at the National Cryptologic School, the training arm of NSA. It was a large department, responsible for training thousands of military and civilian personnel in dozens of languages. This was the step that immersed me in the world of language teaching, which led to my involvement with STARTALK.
After I had been in the language department for about a year and a half, I was asked to work at the Center for the Advanced Study of Language (CASL), a newly established university-affiliated research center at the University of Maryland, which had been established under NSA sponsorship. The work at the CASL was intellectually stimulating but physically demanding, as I was overseeing 15 research projects, and I came down with pneumonia.
While recuperating, I read a press release about a meeting at the White House on January 6, 2006, at which President George W. Bush had announced the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). The goal of the NSLI was expanding national capacity in languages critical to national security. The NSLI included 14 language-related programs, including two completely new programs, one of which was STARTALK. It was briefly described as a program of summer camps in language for students and teachers. I had no idea that within a few weeks I would be responsible for this new program.
About a week after the NSLI announcement, I was tapped to go to the newly established Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to serve as the senior language officer for the intelligence community. It sounded rather glamorous, but when I arrived at my new office, I learned that that there was no support staff, and that my predecessor, who had already resigned to take another job, had left me a long email listing about a dozen major tasks. One of these tasks was starting STARTALK.

I was trying furiously to find out more about STARTALK, but the initial information about it was very sketchy. Some short memos specified that the ODNI would have responsibility for leading the program and that the NSA would be the executive agent for implementation. As for program content, the only guidance was that the program was to establish summer camps for students and teachers in critical languages, starting with Chinese and Arabic for high school students in the summer of 2007. The goal for the first year would be a total of 400 students and 400 teachers spread across camps in five states. Within five years, STARTALK was to grow to a 50-state program for 3,000 students and 3,000 teachers, grades K–16, and teaching ten languages. There was nothing about the content or the structure of the program, and even the additional languages were not specified.
After reviewing this documentation, I understood that I was truly solely responsible for getting the project off the ground. I made a couple of decisions right off the bat. I believed there could be a variety of formats and the term camp was too limited. So I changed all the documentation and substituted the word programs for camps. I also decided that the teacher programs would offer professional development. I had been involved in the language-teaching world long enough by then to realize that one of the big gaps in expanding national capacity in the critical languages was the need for trained teachers. Nobody challenged what I was doing. I was given this responsibility and I went with it.
I also quickly learned that even when the President of the U.S. announces that there is going to be a new program, it does not happen automatically. There has to be a law that underpins funding the program. After some research, ODNI lawyers found that the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 had a relevant section. It stated that if the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence determine that there is a need to enhance the national capacity in languages critical to national security, they shall (i.e., must) jointly agree to endorse a program to make this happen. To move forward, we would have to draft a document describing STARTALK, and it would have to be signed by both the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence, or their delegates, agreeing to endorse the program. This was a huge challenge, since these are very busy people.
I spent a lot of time trying to get the right people to focus attention on STARTALK. It was very difficult, because it was such small-scale stuff compared to the War on Terrorism. I remember talking to a high-ranking DoD lawyer who repeatedly asked me, “Tell me again why we would pay for training for people who don’t work for us.” This went on for months. I grew increasingly concerned, because 2006 was slipping away and we were supposed to start the program in 2007. The pressure was intense, because I was not going to let it fail. In June 2006, we received approval to spend some money on planning for the program, but not on implementation. We then signed a one-year planning contract with the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, beginning our fruitful partnership with the NFLC on STARTALK. Finally, in November of 2006, the authorizing memo was signed, and at that point we were able to start working on a contract for program implementation. But if we didn’t have that contract in place by June 2007, there would not be a program.
Nevertheless, we moved forward on the planning with great enthusiasm. I had a lot of goals in mind. I wanted to ensure that STARTALK would be a first-class program from the academic perspective. To achieve this, we invited some of the top language people in the country to serve on newly established advisory boards. Another goal was to make sure that the programs did not charge tuition, to reach all interested students. I wanted to strive for geographic diversity, as we were building a 50-state program. As for program content, I wanted to see what kind of creative ideas people could come up with. So I proposed that we simply put out a call for proposals for summer programs, without any specifications on format, and then judge them on their academic merits. We had no idea how people were going to respond.
Amazingly enough, we received dozens of proposals from all kinds of places—heritage programs, university departments, and public and private schools, all over the country. Proposals ranged from one-week online programs to nine-week college courses. The NFLC created a formal set of criteria for proposal review, and identified a panel of experts to evaluate the proposals. I said, “Let’s try to fund as many of the good programs as we can.” In the first year, we were able to fund 34 programs in 22 states and the District of Columbia. This was really excellent, because the initial goal was to have programs in five states and we greatly exceeded that. The total enrollment was supposed to be about 800 in the first year, and we were at about 1,350.
Along the way we had some very tense moments. The planning contract was going to run out on June 30th, and until the implementation contract was in force, we could not fund any of the programs. Still, we went ahead and put out the call for proposals, reviewed the proposals, and announced the awards. In a risky maneuver, we made a precontract award to the NFLC to fund the early programs, but if the implementation contract was not signed, all that money would have to be returned. It really went down to the wire. I was on the phone nearly every day with the contracting officer, trying to find out why she wasn’t approving this contract and patiently answering her questions. Finally, on June 29th, she approved the implementation contract. It was a huge relief. Finally we were able to pay the bills and move forward.
I wouldn’t say that all the programs in 2007 were perfect, but it was a start. I established the requirement for site visits for every program to foster continuous improvement, and this has become a fixture of the program.
Because it was the first year in a completely new program, the mere fact that we got the program off the ground made it successful. However, I wanted to go out and visit as many of the programs as I could to see what was going on. I visited about eight or ten programs that summer from coast to coast. Seeing those first programs in action was one of the most joyous experiences of my government career.
We started adding languages after the first year. The original goal was to have programs in ten languages and to get programs to all 50 states in five years. We didn’t quite make everything in five years. We got the ten languages, but the 50 states took until 2013, with North Dakota being the last one. Just recently we added Korean and we now have eleven languages.
In early 2008, I left the ODNI after being there for two years for a new assignment in Hawaii. Around that time, the direct management of STARTALK was transferred to the NSA. In 2011, I returned from Hawaii for my current job at the National Cryptologic School. My role at STARTALK now is assisting with strategic planning through serving as the chair of the STARTALK Steering Committee. Our main strategic goal for STARTALK is to leverage what we’ve already done to benefit more students, teachers, and communities. We have had about 56,000+ participants, including 10,000 teachers. How can we expand access to foreign language education even further?

Laura Murray was interviewed by Mary Thrond, former president of the Minnesota Council for the Teaching of Languages and Culture and professor of Spanish at the University of Minnesota Morris, during the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages 2016 conference in San Diego, California.

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