Elizabeth Nixon (left) with children from St. James Primary School in Kenya. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Nixon (left) with children from St. James Primary School in Kenya. Courtesy photo


In 2000, Elizabeth Nixon, who was then 6 years old, found a book at the library about an African safari. She lived in the country near a small northern Indiana town where “everyone talked the same, everyone went to the same church.” But when she saw the animals and the scenery in the Africa book, she fell in love.

Fast-forward to summer 2010, when Nixon, then a student at Bloomington High School South, saw an ad for a free summer program to learn Swahili at Indiana University. It was a few days past the registration date, but “in a split-second decision, I decided to register anyway,” says Nixon. She was accepted and started immediately.

The program is STARTALK Swahili, which offers four weeks of intensive learning in Swahili, a lingua franca of East Africa. Four levels of instruction are taught, equaling four semesters of credits, which can be used to meet foreign language requirements at universities nationwide.

Students are immersed in the language from day one. “Over 90 percent of the teaching is done in Swahili,” says Director Alwiya Saleh Omar. Instructors use visual aids and give context clues to help students quickly pick up the language. During the school year, there are monthly refresher sessions.

Nixon was so inspired by her STARTALK experience that she and her mother, Diana Nixon, founded a music cultural exchange in Kenya called Tunaweza Kimuziki, which means “through music all is possible.” They linked IU Jacobs School of Music students with musicians at Kenyatta University in Kenya. Nixon eventually left the program to pursue work elsewhere in Kenya and in Rwanda, but the program is still going strong.

Nixon, now 21, is a senior at IU in international studies with hopes of attending The Graduate Institute, Geneva in Switzerland. She took a two-week intensive course there in 2014, studying multilateral relations and United Nations operations. Her goal is to return to East Africa after earning a master’s degree to study how international aid is administered or perhaps to work for the U.N. She is amazed that her split-second decision at age 17 changed her career trajectory. “STARTALK is completely worth your time and effort,” she says. “You really have no idea where it’s going to take you.”